Insults, Slurs, and Other Pejorative Speech

Anyone who is familiar with premodern Indian philosophy written in Sanskrit knows that philosophers were not above using insults in their work. J.M. Verpoorten (2002) has a paper collecting these insults, which include akṛta-buddhi (having an unformed mind), paśu (animal, brute, beast), as well as lots of synonyms for stupid or foolish (jāḍya etc). And one of the common examples used for secondary meaning, what we might call “metaphor,” is gaur vāhīkaḥ, or “The Punjabi is an ox,” which is a slur based on the stereotype that Punjabis are dull (jāḍya) and lazy (māndya). To my knowledge, no one discussing this example takes time to reflect on the ethical status of such slurs, nor do Sanskrit philosophers reflect on the insults they use, understood as a special linguistic category.

Yet the ethical implications of speech in general were at the same time a theme in Sanskritic reflection on language. Buddhist philosophers are famous for their having a notion of “right speech,” and Jaina philosophers emphasize speaking truthfully, perhaps even to the exclusion of using non-literal language (Flügel 2010). Naiyāyikas argue that in a debate, being too much of a stickler for the literal meaning, and ignoring how people actually use language, amounts to causistry. And of course, in Alaṁkāra, there is much discussion over norms in poetic speech, for instance, what is inappropriate in virtue of being too obviously sexual and thus crude.

What I have not seen in Indian philosophy, however, is the thematization of insults and slurs as a special category of speech meriting its own investigation, like in contemporary analytic philosophy. The IEP has an entry for Pejorative Language (and the SEP will soon have one on slurs, I believe) which gives a sense as to why contemporary philosophers take pejoratives to merit special treatment as a linguistic phenomenon.

Whenever such differences appear in initial reading, though, I want to first reflect on whether the apparent difference is due to my own ignorance of the literature. Then, if there truly is a difference, I am curious as to what accounts for the way in which philosophical problems are identified as problems. Here, for instance, is the idea of slurs as distinct from insults something unknown in the premodern Indian context? The English term “slur” is used as a verb and a noun early (17th century) in the sense of insult, but not necessarily in the specialized sense of conveying disparagement about a group. So, we might ask, when does the idea of slur as it is being investigated in contemporary philosophy arise in the English-speaking world? Likewise, what would investigation of the verbs kalaṁkayati and malinayati show in the Sanskrit context? Were there expressions that were “taboo” in Sanskrit for analogous reasons as “the N-word” in modern English?

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

2 thoughts on “Insults, Slurs, and Other Pejorative Speech

    • Fair enough, although love of fundamental truth does not prevent sophisticated discussion and thematization of other linguistic concepts such as ellipsis, sentence meaning, word reference, metaphor, and so on. And especially since speech has ethical/epistemic implications that motivates inquiry into the mechanisms of speech (as we see in lots of other cases), why not look at how insults work?

      This is not to say that there should be such a focus, only that it may be interesting how it arises or does not, in different contexts.

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