School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Linguistics Guest Speaker Seminar | Heather Burnett (CNRS-Université Paris Diderot)

6 February 2019

Time: 4:30 - 6:00pm
Venue: ArtsTwo 2.17

A persona-based semantics for slurs

In this presentation, I present a new style of semantic analysis for slurs: linguistic expressions used to denigrate individuals based on some aspects of their identity. As an illustration, I will focus on one slur in particular: dyke, which is generally considered to be a derogatory term for lesbians. I argue that current research on these terms is limited in (at least) two ways: firstly, I argue not enough attention has been paid to the use of dyke by members of the target group, who can often use it in an non-insulting manner; secondly, I argue 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, 2013, 312). Following McConnell-Ginet (2002), I argue that the semantics of lesbian is actually quite complex, and that taking into account all the uses of both dyke and lesbian requires a new semantics and pragmatics for both terms. Building on work in Third Wave variationist sociolinguistics (such as Zhang 2005, Podesva 2007 and Eckert 2008), I propose 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 (see also Jones 2012); whereas, lesbian is associated with a mainstream persona, which many speakers view favourably. I show how we can develop an explicit characterization of speaker/listener ideologies using tools from formal semantics, specifically Gärdenfors (2000, 2014)'s Conceptual Spaces framework, and I propose that that the semantic puzzles associated with dyke and lesbian can be resolved through the combination of an explicit theory of these personae in Conceptual Spaces and a theory of how listeners' beliefs about their interlocutors' ideologies affect utterance interpretation, developed in a game-theoretic framework such as Frank & Goodman (2012).