How many times did not change the impact of a word used. One time you had to use a word because a previous word was considered not right. But later than new word or other words became also considered wrong. As such in our lifetime we had to change already four times the word to talk about coloured people with a brown skin.
Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker, 15 May 2017
The most energetic but also the most frustrating section of ‘Talking Back’ is a short treatise on the word ‘nigga.’ McWhorter takes the customary care in distinguishing the word from its uglier, older cousin, ‘nigger,’ but he pushes the distinction further than most: for McWhorter, these are not simply two separate English words, let alone two pronunciations of the same word; they are, rather, words that belong to two different dialects. ‘Nigger is Standard English and nigga is Black English,’ he writes, matter-of-factly. ‘Nigga means ‘You’re one of us.’ Nigger doesn’t.’
This interpretation helps to explain the odd power that ‘nigga’ wields over blacks and whites alike when said aloud. Richard Pryor’s use of it in his standup act in the seventies was radical not simply because street lingo had made its way onto the stage: Pryor had swung open the door between alternate cultural dimensions. Blacks suddenly felt at home – ’up in the comedy club,’ somebody might have said – and whites relished the brief peek into a room they rarely saw. Something similar happened, and keeps on happening, with hip-hop, many of whose practitioners use the N-word as a kind of challenge to white enthusiasts. It’s become a familiar joke: when the music’s loud, and emotions are high, who dares recite, in full, the lyric that eventually alights on ‘nigga’?
That ‘nigga’ is not only one of our most controversial words but also one of our funniest is revealing, and worth puzzling over. McWhorter doesn’t allow himself the pleasure. The word’s power – and therefore its coherence, its licitness as language – is impossible to understand without a glance at the history of race-rooted subjugation in America. The emergence of Black English is owed in part to straightforwardly linguistic factors: McWhorter convincingly cites the phenomenon of recently enslaved adults straining to learn a new language, plus a syncretistic importation of vocal gestures picked up along the trail of forced migration. But it also developed as a covert, often defiant response to the surveillance state of slavery. Grammatical nuance, new vocabulary, subtleties of tone – these were verbal expressions of racism’s mind-splitting crucible, what WEB Du Bois called ‘double consciousness.’ As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has written, black vernacular is a literary development as well as a linguistic one. ‘The black tradition’ – from ring shouts to Ralph Ellison – ‘is double-voiced,’ Gates writes, in the introduction to his seminal study, ‘The Signifying Monkey,’ echoing Du Bois. The humor associated with black language play – with jokers like Pryor and Bernie Mac – directly descends from this multivocal tradition, and from the trouble that made it necessary.