Spelling the “N-Bomb”

The Penn State Daily Collegian has a nice article on the new album by hip-hop artist Nas, titled, yes Nigger (now washing mouth with soap).
The use of the N-bomb in hip-hop is not news, but today I noticed am interesting trend in spelling. If you take a look at the album titles at the bottom, you’ll notice that the earliest ones in the 90’s are all spelled Nigga which is an approximation of the AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) pronunciation which drops final /r/. As we would say in the academic ‘hood, AAVE is a “non-rhotic” form like British English, Yew Yorker English and Southern English.
Apparently this -ga spelling was chosen as “less-threatening”, which I find amusing. Trust me, it’s the same word with or without the final /r/. But it shows the power of conventional spelling has over the minds of the speakers. Somehow changing the spelling (to one a little more phonetically accurate at that) makes the word “less real” or at least “less official.”
About the only true linguistic spin I can put on this is that the AAVE use of the term is not the same as the white usage. The former can be semi-affectionate while the white usage is pretty much 100% derogatory. But let me tell you…I think this one is stretch.
I’ll note that by 2000, we were able to accept standard English “nigger” (spitting mouth out again). The real choice NAS had was whether to use AAVE -ga or standard -ger. But is this truly a victory for proper spelling?
Beyond the issue of whether we are trapped by the N-bomb, I can definitively say we are still trapped by the fallacy that AAVE is not a valid language. It is only when the standard (white) pronunciation is used that we achieve full social outrage. The use of the phonetically accurate, but non-standard -ga form is not seen as fully legitimate (hence the slightly less outrage). So I leave this issue with a truly multi-layered sigh (accompanied by a good chuckle).


NAS and others have commented their usage of the word is an attempt to reclaim it and render it harmless by repeated exposure, and I can see their point. For instance, “Yankee” started out as an insult, but is now used with pride by modern Yankees. Although I had to point out to a foreigner that it was in fact a compliment these days, and not really all that derogatory anymore.
On the other hand, my earliest memories of the N-word are from rural Maryland where it was used by whites and was about as mean as you could make it (once there was a barking dog involved). I will always have this awful association, and I’m not even African American! You can’t blame people for getting riled up by this.

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