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Title: You Called Her a What?! Experimental Evidence for the Expressive and Descriptive Dimensions of Slurs

Name: Talia Lang

Major: Linguistics and Psychology

School affiliation: Douglass Residential College, School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program

Programs: Honors College Capstone

Other contributors: Kristen Syrett, Yisha Yao

Abstract: Slurs such as the invented “Mudblood” are derogatory terms that refer to a target group (Croom 2013). Slurs elicit moral censure, but can be appropriated – reclaimed positively by the target group (Croom 2013, Bianchi 2014). On the one hand, slurs have descriptive, truth-conditional content, in contrast to insults (Croom 2013). On the other hand, slurs pattern with expressives such as “damn” or “moron” by projecting speaker-oriented expressive not-at-issue content (Potts 2007). These combine to form a slur’s nonpejorative correlate, or its truth-conditional content (“Mudblood = Muggleborn and therefore despicable”). Some researchers argue that slurs’ expressive content is not truth-conditional, and that slurs are pejorative because of social taboo (Anderson & Lepore 2013). Others argue that slurs’ expressive content is truth-conditional (Hom 2008; Hom & May 2018). Still others argue that slurs trigger presuppositions or conventional implicatures of expressive content (Cepollaro 2015; Whiting 2013; Bianchi 2018).

We addressed two main research questions. We asked whether slurs’ expressive content is projective and thus speaker-oriented, and whether slurs resist direct rejection, as not-at-issue content generally elicits indirect responses (Syrett & Koev 2015). We tested slurs from multiple demographic categories, along with insults and control items, in naturalistic exchanges. Written surveys were administered via Qualtrics online to undergraduates.

In experiments 1 and 2, slurs, insults, and control items (presuppositions and appositives) were embedded under the scopal operators verb of saying (a presupposition plug and conventional implicature hole), factive verb (a hole), propositional negation, and metalinguistic negation. Participants determined whether the slurs’ derogatory content was speaker-oriented. If so, then we can conclude it projected and was not-at-issue.

In experiments 3 and 4, participants determined how they would and would not object to an utterance which contained a slur, an insult, or a control item (presuppositions, appositives, and at-issue content). Rejections were direct or indirect, repetition (which included the slur word) or no repetition, and use-focus or application-focus. Use-focus responses represented metalinguistic negation; application-focus responses represented propositional negation.

A global pandemic disrupted data analysis. It was found that slurs are as speaker-oriented as insults, but are more offensive. Slurs are so offensive that despite their derogatory content being not-at-issue, they warrant direct rejection. Slurs elicited repetition rejection, but we hypothesize that these responses would be different if participants were required to speak them aloud. Slurs that are more appropriated, and slurs that are more unfamiliar, elicit different responses than their negative, familiar counterparts. Slurs were not comparably projective to control items, so the slur-as-presupposition and slur-as-conventional-implicature hypotheses require more study. More study is required to elucidate how propositional and metalinguistic negation are understood, as participants were able to distinguish between these two yet still misunderstood them. This study serves as a springboard for a wealth of exciting new research on slurs.