Demeaning and Use: a Pragmatic Account of Slurs as Instances of Social Deixis

Jason Krivo Flores


A slur is a derogatory epithet targeting an entire class of people. Slurs may target groups of people on the basis of race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other feature deemed salient. Beyond the inherent interest sparked by their taboo and highly offensive nature, slurs are linguistically interesting in that they are highly resistant to standard truth-conditional semantic analysis; as such, the theoretical study of slurs comprises a key intellectual battleground in the semantics/pragmatics debate. The field of linguistic inquiry known as pragmatics is the study of language use in context. Pragmatics originated, most notably, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contention that in most cases a word’s meaning amounted to its use in a language. In contrast to semantics, pragmatics views meaning not primarily in terms of explicitly encoded linguistic information, but rather as being chiefly dependent upon the social and physical contexts of utterances, speaker’s background knowledge, and the inferred intentions of the agents involved. Deixis refers to the pragmatic phenomenon whereby the extralinguistic context of an utterance or speech event is required to fix the reference or otherwise disambiguate the meaning of a lexical or grammatical structure. Examples of deictic terms are common indexicals, such as: “I,” “here,” and “now,” which, being token reflexive, require information about the context of their utterance in order to achieve proper reference, e.g., “now” self-reflexively refers to the precise time at which any particular tokening of said term is uttered or otherwise employed. Social deixis concerns the lexicalization and grammaticalization of the social status of speakers, hearers, third persons, or other entities, and the social relationships which obtain between them; it includes the study of honorifics, personal pronouns and, most familiarly, the tou/vous distinction. It comprises the study of those linguistic items, which reflect, establish, or are determined by, realities of the social situation in which a speech act occurs. Information encoded by social deixis typically includes class, kin relationships, age, sex, profession, and ethnic group. In this paper I argue that social deictic markers can be seen to track the same extension determining properties as slurs. I therefore conclude that slurs function as social-deictic markers of disrespect and contempt that target entire classes of people for discrimination based on a single identifying feature. If slurs are, as I contend, instances of social deixis, this fact accounts for their puzzling non-truth functional behavior whilst providing a more parsimonious account than competing formal semantic theories.


Social Deixis, Pragmatics, Slurs

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