November 4: Geoff Nunberg

The Semantics and Philosophy of Language Workshop is pleased to welcome Geoff Nunberg (UC Berkeley).

DATE: November 4, 2011
TIME: 11-1pm
PLACE: Wieboldt 130

‘A minimal semantics for derogatives, or being mean without meaning’

Derogative terms raise two kinds of questions. The first is how they achieve their effect of conveying disdain for the members of a group and imputing to them a set of discreditable traits: how much of this follows from their lexical meanings, and how much is part of what one asserts when one uses them? My answer to these is, in brief, almost nothing. The linguistic meaning of a derogative word like redskin is pretty much exhausted by its typical dictionary definition; e.g., “redskin: (Offensive Slang) Used as a disparaging term for an American Indian.” That account generalizes to other evaluative terms. But a second question involves a property that (some) derogatives share only with vulgar descriptions, which I call universal solvency: they can arouse strong feelings in virtue of their form alone, and that potential bleeds through the operators, like quotation, that normally absolve a speaker from responsibility for their content — one can’t ever mention them. That property involves a locutionary act, not an illocutionary one, and can’t be explained by any accounts of how they come by their evaluative import (including mine).