Monday, May 24, 2021

There are two N-words. The difference is subtle. Don’t confuse them. [John McWhorter]

For the purposes of this post I am going to spell them out in full, both of them: “nigger” and “nigga.” In so doing I am only mentioning them, I am not using either of them in reference to anyone.

“Nigger” is one of the words linguist John McWhorter discusses in his new book, Nine Nasty Words, which is currently 14th on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. McWhorter recently appeared on In Lieu of Fun, a podcast & online coffee klatsch (scotch is more likely), to discuss that word in particular, but any other word people are curious about. One of the hosts, Ben Wittes, starts with a trigger warning for those who might be offended by hearing the word.

The whole discussion is interesting; I recommend it.

At about 45:59 McWhorter tells us that, yes, when they are a bit older, he’ll be reading Huckleberry Finn to them: two girls are certainly going to exposed to Huckleberry Finn, complete with all the voices, and every word that’s in the book and I know they will be just fine. Unfortunately I’m gonna’ to have to give it to them because I can tell that they’re never going to be exposed to it in school.

Wittes, then asks him about a closely related word (c. 46:30), “the Black English vernacular version of the word that is routinely said and kind of means ‘guy’.” McWhorter had earlier said that he regards it as a different word. He goes on to elaborate, noting that (c. 47:29), “there’s a certain generation of non-black boys who are using the version of it that ends in ‘A’ to mean buddy among one another and then finding themselves sanctioned as if they’re using the slur.”

I know John. We’ve met at parties in Jersey City, where he used to live (he’s now in Queens), and we’ve corresponded. So later that day I sent him an email in which I discuss the usage of “nigga” that I’d seen while living in Jersey City. Here’s that email, though I’ve changed people’s names out of courtesy:

I lived in Hamilton Park before I moved to Bergen-Lafayette; this was over a decade ago, before Hurricane Sandy. For awhile I hung out in a sneaker shop owned and run by one Romesh Schmidt. I don’t know where the last name came from, but both of his parents are of East Indian descent. Why was I hanging out in a sneaker shop? It’s a little complicated, but it was an interesting place, and sneaker culture rides along with graffiti culture, and I’ve been interested in that for a long time.

The people who came though the shop were sneaker heads. They tended to be young, late teens through maybe early 30s. They represented a reasonable sample of Jersey City’s ethnic diversity. And ‘nigga’ was coin of this realm. Romesh used the term constantly; he was a very friendly and out-going fellow. Others used it as well, without regard to race. The term may be ethnically black, but in that shop everyone was culturally black. I should also say that I would never have used the term – my age, couldn’t pull it off – but I wasn’t uncomfortable that others used it so freely.

Now, it’s a couple years later and I’m living in Bergen-Lafayette. Hurricane Sandy comes through and many people lost their electrical power for days, some cases weeks. I was out for 4 days. One evening a bunch of us were gathered at the house of Mary Smith, just down the street from Ruth and Keith’s. She had electrical power, and food. On the assumption that you aren’t familiar with her, she’s a middle aged woman born and bred in Jersey City. She founded and runs [a local community organization]. She’s a community leader. Politicians seek her out.

So, we were hanging out at Mary’s. Most of us were black; I may have been a minority of one, I don’t really remember. If not one, then two or maybe three. And some of the younger folks – 20s to 30s – were making free with ‘nigga’. Which bothered some of the older folks, Mary included. Its use became the topic of conversation; you can imagine how that went. It was perfectly civil, though perhaps just a little excited here and there. [Can’t tell how much I’m recalling and how much I’m (re)constructing.] At one point, though, I noticed that Mary was nervous and tense and clearly working up to something. Then she said it. I don’t recall what she said beyond the fact that she used the word ‘nigga’, perhaps even the phrase ‘my nigga’ and it was clearly an effort for her to do so. People laughed, and the evening went on. For some reason it was important to her to establish the fact that she was willing and able to use the word. But I never heard it again from her.

So, why are “nigga” and “nigger” two different words, though the former is derived from the latter? We’ve got two factors:

  1. Distribution and usage,
  2. pronunciation.

The people who use “nigga” tend to be young and they use the word in situations and in ways they would never use “nigger,” if they’d use the latter word at all. Without this difference in distribution and usage, “nigga” would just be a variant pronunciation of the other word. Given the difference in distribution and usage, however, we need different pronunciations to avoid confusing the two words.

Though I am by no means sure of this, I attribute the rise of “nigga” to hip hop culture, where it appears in the lyrics of many songs. If it hasn’t already been done, someone should do some research on this.

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