What is semantic bleaching?

Note: this post was coauthored with Christopher Hall.

TRIGGER WARNING: this post will discuss profanity, obscenity, taboo language, slurs, and racially charged terms.

I recently received word that an abstract Chris and I submitted to the Linguistic Society of America was accepted for a 30 minute talk at the LSA annual meeting in January of 2015.

While exciting, this is also somewhat terrifying, because our research involves not just syntax, but taboo words, dialect divergence, and America's ugly racial history (and present).

Outside of academia, there's an enormous amount of potential for misunderstanding, offense, hostility, and other ill feelings. Even among academics there's the potential for hurt feelings.

In brief, our research takes both recent work in syntax and recent work in sociolinguistics, and couples it with good, old-fashioned field-work and new computation methods (read: tens of thousands of tweets).

However, the subject matter involves the emergence of a new class of pronouns in one (sub-)dialect of English from words that are considered offensive or taboo in other varieties of English.

As such, it's potentially quite charged.

Before describing the research, it is absolutely crucial to note that:

  1. we work as descriptive linguists: this means we observe a real-world phenomenon and describe it.
  2. We neither condone nor disapprove of the data. Our job is simply to describe and analyze natural language as it is used in the world.
  3. Both authors are native speakers of the variety of English in question.

Semantic Bleaching and the Emergence of New Pronouns in AAVE

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