A Persona-based Semantics for Slurs

In: Grazer Philosophische Studien
Heather Burnett Université de Paris / CRNS,

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This paper presents a new style of semantic analysis for (some) slurs: linguistic expressions used to denigrate individuals based on some aspects of their identity. As an illustration, the author will focus on one slur in particular: dyke, which is generally considered to be a derogatory term for lesbians. The author argues that not enough attention in the literature has been paid to the use of dyke by members of the target group, who can often use it in a non-insulting manner; secondly, the author argues not enough attention has been paid to the use of the “neutral” form, lesbian, which is generally treated as having a simple, clear meaning, such as “engage[s] in same-sex sex” (Jeshion, 2013a, 312). Following McConnell-Ginet (2002), the author argues that taking into account all the uses of both dyke and lesbian requires a new semantics and pragmatics for both terms. More specifically, the author proposes that dyke and lesbian are associated with different sets of personae: abstract identities or stereotypes. Dyke is associated with an anti-mainstream persona, which the vast majority of speakers views negatively; whereas, lesbian is associated with a mainstream persona, which many speakers view favourably. The author proposes that the semantic puzzles associated with dyke and lesbian can be resolved through the combination of a theory of these personae and a theory of how listeners’ beliefs about their interlocutors’ ideologies affect utterance interpretation.

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