the respelling tactic

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Jul 8 02:04:57 UTC 2004

On Jul 3, 2004, at 2:47 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      the respelling tactic
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> from today's (7/3/04) NYT, story by Sharon Waxman, "Using a Racial
> Epithet To Combat Racism", p. A19, about the documentary "The N Word":
> ---------
> The perspectives diverge widely.  Young hip-hop artists defiantly state
> their right to use the word whenever they wish.  An unidentified
> teenage white girl explains carefully that "niggaz" is completely
> different from niggers and thus acceptable.
> ----------
> ah, the respelling strategy, which gave us "boyz", "grrlz",
> "ghey/ghay", and possibly others, where the differentiation of senses
> is entirely orthographic.  in this case, it's possible that the girl is
> an rful speaker and has a phonological distinction between "niggers"
> and "niggaz" -- though i doubt it would assuage offended rless speakers
> if she told them that she spelled these words differently.

For the record, it is specifically the r-ful, "white" pronunciation of
the "magic (because of its ability to change the social ambience of any
black-white interaction from neutral or good to bad) word" that is
grossly offensive. The purpose of the "niggaz," etc. respellings is
specifically to block the (presumably unwitting) use of that
pronunciation by unassimilated, so to speak, whites who wish to
associate with blacks and live to tell about it. I personally am not
offended by any (re)spelling of "nigger" that may appear in print.
However, I find hearing the r-ful pronunciation extremely unpleasant
[Youse know what my dad told me we call youse? Niggers! That's what we
call youse. Niggers!], regardless of the circumstances under which it
may be used, even when used by another black person. E.g. I found the
r-ful pronunciation to be annoyingly common among members of the black
bourgeoisie in Los Angeles, though the use of the magic word is not
nearly as common there as in other cities, like Saint Louis, my home
I was having a beer in a bar in LA, one time, when someone came through
the door asking, "How all y'all niggers doing?" The bartender replied,
"You can always tell a man from Saint Louis. The first thing he do when
he come into a place is call everybody 'nigger'!"
On the other hand, in Marshall, TX, the town of my birth, the use of
"nigger" among blacks is extremely rare and is almost as tabu as the
use of "fuck" in a Sunday sermon.

-Wilson Gray

> whatever else this is, it's a touching tribute to the power of the
> writing system in the minds of its users.  and an interesting
> exploitation of one of the most frequently criticized aspects of the
> english spelling system, namely the many alternative spellings it
> provides for the same pronunciation.
> arnold (zwicky at

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