The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LF Reading Group (11/2) - Katie Martin (MIT)

Speaker: Katie Martin (MIT)
Title: A new presuppositional account for slurs
Time: Wednesday, November 2nd, 1pm – 2pm

Abstract: Preexisting analyses of slurs have treated the negative appraisal associated with their meaning as deriving either semantically, via presupposition or conventional implicature (Cepollaro (2015) and Gutzmann (2015), among others), or pragmatically, via Gricean reasoning (Nunberg (2018) and Bolinger (2017) among others). I respond in this project to two recent works that have criticized these analyses of slurs, both semantic (Lo Guercio 2021) and pragmatic (Falbo 2021).

Falbo (2021) observes that accounts that deem slurs to be semantically equivalent to their neutral counterparts are significantly challenged by what she calls “non-target” uses, such as the following:
(1) Deandra’s a lesbian, but she’s not a dy*e.
(2) Not only is my neighbour a lesbian, but she’s a total dy*e too. She drives a motorcycle and is covered in tattoos.

Under the claim that slurs and their neutral counterparts have identical semantics, (1) should be incoherent and (2) should be redundant – however, this is obviously not the case. Indeed, this data provides a challenge not just for pragmatic accounts, but for semantic accounts as well – if the only difference in meaning between “lesbian” and “dyke” is that the latter presupposes a negative attitude towards lesbians on the part of the speaker, it seems distinctly odd that a single speaker would utter both of the clauses in each of (1) and (2) – and yet such utterances are perfectly natural.

In a similar vein, Lo Guercio (2021) criticizes presuppositional accounts of slurs on the grounds that even bigoted speakers can use “neutral” forms in place of slurs, which ought to cause a violation of Maximize Presupposition, but seems in fact to be perfectly felicitous.

I address these important objections by proposing a theory of slurs in which the presuppositional content associated with the use of a slur is not simply a negative attitude on the speaker’s part towards the group identified by the slur, but rather a negative attitude towards the stereotypes associated with that particular group and, crucially, that these stereotypes are relevant/salient in the conversational context.
(see also abstract attached)