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Bad Words Gone Good: Semantic Reanalysis in African American English

Washington, Adrienne Ronee (2010) Bad Words Gone Good: Semantic Reanalysis in African American English. Master's Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Semantic reanalysis produces lexemes that bear positive connotations in AAE in contrast with their "Mainstream" American English (MAE) (Lippi-Green, 1997) homonyms. For example, bad-AAE, awesome, versus bad-MAE, characterized by negative qualities. This present survey of semantic reanalysis in AAE shows that lexical meaning is subject to analogous types of linguistic variation commonly discussed in variationist studies. It helps lay the foundation for a quantitative study of African American English (AAE) lexemes and semantic change through an exploration of semantic reanalysis.Previous investigations of semantic reanalysis (e.g. Smitherman, 1977) claim that using defamatory words, like bad, in positive ways derives from an African tradition, i.e. hypothesizing that these are semantic calquings from Niger-Congo languages. Although semantic reanalysis appears in West African languages, it is also used by minority groups with no West African connection. Additionally, although the sociohistorical evidence suggests that AAE is a restructured English variety, semantic reanalysis is not a necessary strategy for restructured Englishes. The inadequacy of Afro-genetic accounts, together with the fact that the linguistics literature lacks a cohesive discussion of AAE semantic reanalysis, has motivated the present study. It offers more accessible, verifiable and generalizable explanations for AAE semantics. This study reveals that AAE's distinct semantics cannot be attributed to Niger-Congo retention but rather to the ecology around which AAE emerged. I propose that AAE semantics derive from sociohistorical factors that have shaped the variety. I also suggest that semantic reanalysis is a productive, community-wide phenomenon that a number of AAE speakers employ as a form of responsive discourse, i.e. to differentiate themselves from non-community members.These results are based on quantitative and supplementary qualitative analyses of data from 53 AAE-speaking adults from the Rankin community in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Participants provided definitions and positive/negative evaluations of a variety of lexemes, including semantically reanalyzed words. Responses were coded using AAE and MAE dictionaries alongside my own native-speaker intuitions. Frequency analyses helped assess the pervasiveness of semantic reanalysis in the AAE community.Mixed-effects regression tests identified a generation-stratified pattern of variation wherein participants born after 1959--i.e. post-de jure segregation--were more familiar with reanalyzed words.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Washington, Adrienne
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairGooden, Shelome Asgooden@pitt.eduSGOODEN
Committee MemberMcEwan-Fujita, Emilyemcewan@pitt.eduEMCEWAN
Committee MemberKiesling, Scott Fkiesling@pitt.eduKIESLING
Date: 2 June 2010
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 9 April 2010
Approval Date: 2 June 2010
Submission Date: 13 April 2010
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Linguistics
Degree: MA - Master of Arts
Thesis Type: Master's Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: African American language; Black English; language change; language variation; racial epithets; semantic amelioration; semantic inversion; semantic reversal; the N-word
Other ID:, etd-04132010-181631
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:37
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:40


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