Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

The Semantics of Racial Slurs: Using Kaplan's Framework to Provide a Theory of the Meaning of Derogatory Epithets

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

The Semantics of Racial Slurs: Using Kaplan's Framework to Provide a Theory of the Meaning of Derogatory Epithets

Article excerpt


In this paper I adopt Kaplan's framework for distinguishing between descriptive and expressive content. Racial slurs are an especially difficult challenge for truth-conditional semantics because of their projection behaviors. That is to say, the offensive content of slurs "scopes out" of logical operators. I argue that racial slurs express contempt and lack descriptive content, so that many sentences containing slurs are not truth apt. My theory accounts for the intuition of the ordinary speaker who refuses to assent to the truth of a sentence containing a slur, but accepts the same statement made using a neutral counterpart of that slur. Weaknesses of rival theories (including those of Williamson, Hom, and Richard) are briefly discussed.

Keywords: slurs, expressivism, David Kaplan, semantics, epithets, projection

1. Preliminaries

Before we get started, Fd like to just remind ourselves that, as we all know, slurs are offensive words that can hurt people, and as we'll discuss later, their offensiveness projects through almost any type of linguistic construction. In feet, not only would I rather not use any slur words, but Fd rather not even mention any. In the past I've used less offensive slurs as examples, but part of the problem with that tactic is that the more odious examples are actually better at priming the kinds of intuitions that I rely on. So I'll use a capital 'S' as a schematic letter standing in for a racial, ethnic or religious slur. Since we are all unfortunately aware of many slur words, I invite you to think to yourself of an example that you find particularly offensive, and then make your judgments about that sort of example statement. Also, this paper concerns only slurring uses of slur words. There are other interesting phenomena, such as appropriation - which is where a targeted group takes on a slur word to address other insiders of that particular group - but I won't have anything to say about those sorts of uses in this paper.

2. Truth Conditional Semantics

Semantics is the study of the meaning of strings of language. There's a tradition in linguistics and philosophy which places a large emphasis on truth conditions. The basic picture, stemming from work done by Frege, Carnap, Kripke, Kaplan and others, is that (since language is compositional) the meaning of a statement is determined by the meaning of its parts. Take, for example

(1) David is intelligent.

The extension of 'David' will be a particular individual, and the thought or proposition expressed by (1) predicates intelligence of David. So, (1) is true just in case David is intelligent, and false otherwise. According to Frege and the tradition following him, the extension of (1) will be a truth value. One popular way of understanding the intension of (1) is as a function from possible states of affairs to truth values. Thus, meaning either is, or is what determines, a truth value. Since extensions are truth values, logical operators function the same way in semantics that they do in classical logic. Thus, for example, someone who asserts (2) also asserts (1) but someone who asserts (3) does not assert (1). This is because the truth of (2), but not the truth of (3), depends upon the truth of (1). (4) is of course false whenever (1) is true.

(2) David is intelligent and Canada is cold.

(3) If David is intelligent, then so is Judith.

(4) It is not the case that David is intelligent.

3. Projection Behaviors of Slur Words

However, the projection behaviors of slur words pose a challenge to truth conditional semantics. That is to say, the use of a slur remains offensive even when that slur word is embedded under negation, as the antecedent of a conditional, in a question, etc. Thus, someone who uttered (5) would be uttering something clearly offensive. In this sense (5) contrasts with (3), because asserting (3) doesn't commit the speaker to predicating intelligence of David or Judith. …

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