nigga

My favourite part of that Buzzfeed shit was about ‘nigga’. Like 'Ugh, other Black people are so stupid and horrible for wanting to use that word.’

Well, lemme tell yall, I’m a sociolinguist specialising in AAVE and writing my Master’s Thesis on why nigga happened and its social implication.

AAVE is known for semantic bleaching of obscene words so that they can be reappropriated for different purposes. This is why, for example, we add -ass to the end of things, including adjectives and gerunds, to make them more emphatic (e.g. Her long hair havin-ass took 20 minutes to get ready). This is also why we have certain social contexts where it’s okay to use 'bitch’ and 'ho’ and some where it isn’t (à la @katblaque, I thought about this from your video). This has its roots in West Africa, where obscenity is more context based and less lexically linked (a word isn’t always intrinsically a cuss word, but who, how and when someone says it may make it offensive).

It wasn’t until the post-Civil War era when assimilationist Black people decided that using words the white man found offensive was not going to help the cause. Sadly, this ideology persists today.

Nigga has also undergone semantic bleaching, but in a much different way. Black people calling each other nigga is not new, and in fact may even date to slavery. However, in the Africanist way, rarely have Black people as a group taken offence to intragroup usage of the word. There have been individuals who have (and sometimes, these individuals are the most outspoken), but generally it has had a very neutral tone in the AAVE and Black world. However, as recently as the late 80’s and early 90’s the usage of nigga has been politicised, especially through the use of early hip hop, where it was again given new meaning. While nigga had always had nuances of negative, neutral and positive lexical meanings, this was when it was explicity stated on a mainstream stage that Black people can say nigga, white people cannot, and it is because of the usurpation of power. Black power does not entail antiwhiteness, but it does include usurping power from the institution of whiteness. This happens at the linguistic level as much as anywhere else. And in the same way that the LGBTQIA community decided to reclaim 'Queer’, so did the Black community choose to reclaim 'nigga’. Neither. Of course, was a unanimous decision, but they were both generally accepted decisions. What’s more, Black people added an African twist to their reclamation: just as in Africa words are vulgarised by context, so was nigga. In this case, nigga is vulgarised when spoken by a non-Black person.

The social implication then is an anti-assimilationist and Africanist approach to intragroup semantics. It demonstrated unity, power and linguistic pride in the African American speech tradition.

So, @buzzfeed, if you don’t want to participate, that’s fine. Every Black person is allowed to be individual and have their own opinions. But I and many other Black linguists have been pro- (or at least neutral-)nigga for some time. Just wanted to clear it all up for yall.