There exists national and racial discrimination in the English language. Such kind of discrimination can be reflected by words, expressions and also proverbs. This linguistic phenomenon has profound historical and cultural background, reflects national bias, conflicts and hatred, and thus provides us information about historical relationships among nations. This paper analyses causes and connotations of national and racial slurs, and shows the potential negative effects of the slurs on international contacts. It also deals with the current state of linguistic discrimination in modern society and the efforts people make to eliminate the phenomenon.
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Language primarily functions as the communication tool and information transmitter, and is closely linked to ethnic. Every ethnic group in this world has its own language which may be either slightly or totally different from other groups. Language is the carrier of ethnic history and social culture, and evolves together with the society where it is used. So to speak, the development of the ethnic is the fundamental cause and basic condition of the development of the language. Since language and ethnic are so profoundly interrelated, it is no wonder that language is influenced by ethnic feelings and the latter are fully embodied in the former.
1.2 National and racial discrimination in the English language
As a common social phenomenon, national and racial discrimination against other ethnic groups would inevitably exert influence on languages. Thus, slurs come into being in almost every language in the world. Among these languages, English is a particularly striking example which contains many national and racial slurs.
It is clearly seen that in the English language, part of its large vocabulary is concerned with nations and races. Unpleasantly, this part often carries a connotation of national and racial discrimination. We can readily find slurs with various forms such as vocabulary, phrase, address, proverb, etc. Take the “Dutch” idioms for example. If a person says to you, “you do beat the Dutch (Liu, 2003:131)”, he intends to mean that you are excellent.
When people use the “Dutch” idioms, they may wonder how those idioms originate. In fact, the slurs in the English language have profound historical background. Though causes of slurs are rather complicated¼Œyet we can still sort out them. Among these complex causes, ethnocentrism, wars and racial differences are the most important ones.
1.3 Objectives of the study
The study focuses on the phenomenon of national and racial discrimination in the
English language. We will look into the reason why the slurs come into being and the connotations that they carry. Once we get a better idea of their connotations, we can know whether it is proper to use them in public. Hence, we can try to avoid misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication and improve our competence.
Since there are so many slurs in English, we have to be very careful about them.
We may wonder about the following questions. What consequence would they cause when used improperly? Are they still used frequently in daily life? Or are they going to fade out from the English language?
2. Causes of national and racial slurs in the English language
2.1 Obsession of ethnocentrism in the United Kingdom and United States
In Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, ethnocentrism is “based on the ideas and beliefs of one particular culture and using these to judge other cultures”. (Hornby & Wehmeier, 2004:580) Strong sense of national pride is one of the main causes of national discrimination. A nation with ethnocentrism believes in the superiority of its own culture including values, norms, languages, etc., and considers other nations as inferior to it. Since National feelings are closely interlinked with national language, national discrimination finds expression in the latter.
The USA and the UK are considered to be very proud nations. We can tell ethnocentrism from the two countries’ names. (Jiao, 2009:57) The USA is short for the United States of America. Despite the fact that the word America stands for the whole continent including Canada and Mexico, the USA employs it as a component of its country name. When people say Americans today, they generally refer to the people of the USA and exclude Canadian and Mexican. The British is no less proud than the Americans. They used to claim their country to be “the empire on which the sun never sets” and “the mistress of the seas” (Mao, 2003:141) The full name of its nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British prefer to call their country Great Britain. The UK is actually a small country but it is the only country around the world using “great” in its country’s name.
Some proverbs in English are the authentic portrayal of the excessively proud mind of the British. For instance, “the English are a nation of shop-keepers; all countries stand in need of Britain, and Britain of none; one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen.” (Mao, 2003:143) From these proverbs, we can see this island country is completely indulged in self-admiration. It assumes that whatever in its country is good and useful while those in other countries are odd. More often than not, it despises other countries especially those once at war with it such as France and the Netherlands. Even two of the world major powers, Russia and the United States cannot escape the fate of being derided. As the proverb says, “An American will go to hell for a bag of coffee.” “Scratch a Russian, and you will find a tarter.” (Jiao, 2009:59)
Ethnocentrism endows the English language with a predilection towards the UK and the USA, and a bias against other nations or races. An excess of national pride glorifies a country while shows contempt for the virtues of other countries. In reality, it is fair to say that any ethnic group in the world is likely to show undue pride of nationalism of various degrees, consciously or not. Nonetheless¼Œethnocentrism negatively affects international relations and goes against peaceful coexistence.
2.2 National resentment caused by wars
Historical events have undoubtedly made their contribution to the development of English lexicology. New expressions often emerge from times of war when national emotion is running high. In most cases, they continue to stay in the language in the process of social development even if hundreds of years have passed. The “French” and “Dutch” expressions and proverbs are the classic examples.
From a geographical perspective, France faces the United Kingdom across the English Channel. From 1377 to 1453, France and England were engaged in wars over territory and economic benefit. (Dai, 2003) The hundred-year war ended in a victory for France. This certainly gave rise to resentment from Englishmen toward France. English people found expression for their hatred in the English vocabulary. They considered the word “French” as a derogatory one and created many terms containing the word. Even today, we can still see the “French” expressions usually used as pejorative in the English language. For instance, the proverb “one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen” means defeating enemy troops with a force inferior in number. Some “French” phrases are connected with sex and eroticism. A French postcard/novel (Hou, 2009:64) is a pornographic photo/book. French gout (Hou, 2009:64) is syphilis.
Not only the term “French” but also “Dutch” fall into this category. Dated back to 16th century, England had been friendly with the Netherlands. It was not until the 17th century that the Netherlands became one of the largest colonial empires in the world and a strong competitor of England for maritime trade. (Dai, 2003) It was inevitable that growing commercial rivalry between England and the United Netherlands led to the outbreak of wars. There were three Anglo-Dutch Wars fought in the 17th century. After the wars, the United Kingdom of Great Britain achieved maritime supremacy. Due to the wars, hostility persisted for years between the two countries. Many “Dutch” expressions and proverbs represent English feelings toward the Dutch. For instance, Dutch comfort/consolation (Liu, 2003:131) means no comfort/consolation at all. If something is double Dutch (Liu, 2003:131) to a person, he can hardly understand it.
2.3 Racial differences
The majority of Native English speakers are white people. White racists consider their ancestry is sacred and of higher quality than others. They believe that their race possesses absolute and remarkable superiority when compared to others’. As a consequence, they disparage other races in the world. This kind of emotion can be called racial discrimination and is sufficiently reflected in the English language. People can name racial slurs, many of which are related with African Americans, Native Americans and Asians. Expressions and proverbs containing such words as Negro, nigger and Indian often carry a connotation of contempt.
Particularly in the American English, we can recognize the serious racial discrimination phenomenon. The United States is described to be “a big melting pot”, into which immigrants from all around the world have come together and blended their cultures and traditions. People of different nationalities, races, colors and faiths inhabit in the same community, contacting, influencing and integrating mutually. Altogether, they create a dynamic, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural society, and make their specific contribution to the American history. Yet¼Œthis predominantly white country has been faced with racial contradictions and conflicts throughout its history. Strong hostility and prejudice between different racial groups, mostly the white and the colored, has resulted in racism in the English language and led to a rapid increase of discriminatory vocabulary.
2.4 National traits
From the micro point of view, it is a common practice among people to remark on others’ physiological features, and make fun of them about their looks, shapes, and dressing. In a broad perspective, one ethnic group may tease another about its distinctive physiological feature which appears to be strange. It is conceivable that national traits (physiological features and characters) can also be a source of slurs in the English language.
It is not surprising that Japanese, smaller in stature than the westerner¼Œget the nickname “little-yellow-man” (Liu, 2003:129) from the Americans. The Russians are nicknamed “polar bears” (Liu, 2003:129) because on one side part of Russia is located in the cold Arctic Circle, where polar bears often haunt, and on the other the Russians had a reputation for being strong and aggressive.
Although these make sense, making fun of others about their distinctive traits is improper¼Œinconsiderate and even cruel after all. From the perspective of nation, every ethnic group is unique in its traits due to the interactions of heredity, environment and other factors. A nation is inclined to discriminate others on condition that it assumes its traits are better than any other nation’s. It is unfair and wrong to measure other nations by the standard of one’s own nation.
2.5 Spatiotemporal differences
Owing to spatiotemporal differences, countries face different environments which affect their knowledge about others. Therefore, the lack of knowledge of other areas would give rise to wrong interpretations and misunderstandings of people in those areas.
Sometimes a country’s geographical backgrounds can become a popular topic and laughingstock to other countries. We may have heard the saying, “Finland is the devil’s country” (Mao, 2003:143) and wondered about its origin. As is known, Finland is situated at high latitudes of northern hemisphere with cold climatic conditions. The special geographical location leaves an impression on the English-speaking people that Finland is uninhabitable and only devils dare live there.
In the English language, Chinese puzzle (Mao, 2003:142) refers to a complicated thing or problem. The phrase stems from the history when America and China had little contact. The Americans felt confused about China and had a poor understanding of the country. Hence, it is imaginable that they attached a sense of complexity to the word Chinese.
3.Words¼Œexpressions and proverbs mirroring ethical prejudice
In what way can words, expressions and proverbs reflect national and racial discrimination? From the point of modern English lexicology, there are four common tendencies of semantic change in words: restriction of meaning (specialization), extension of meaning (generalization), degeneration of meaning (pejoration), and elevation of meaning (amelioration). (Zhang, 1987:269) Among these four, degeneration of meaning refers to the condition that “words once respectable or neutral may shift to a less respectable or even derogatory meaning.” (Zhang, 1987:277) This is the most common method used in linguistic discrimination. For instance, the “Dutch” idioms in Chapter 3.1.1 have derogatory meanings because the word “Dutch” is degraded into negative sense.
In English, there are so many idioms concerned about ethical prejudice that it would be difficult to cover all of them. Let us have a look at some of them from two broad categories.
3.1 Reflection of national discrimination
Before moving on, I would like to state that all the idioms in the following paragraphs come from On National Prejudice in Language by Liu Baojun except those with special interlinear notes.
3.1.1 The “Dutch” idioms
There are many “Dutch” expressions in English. We probably have heard or said them in daily life. However, we may have little idea about when they were first used and how they came into being. “Dutch” is explained by the unpleasant associations of certain historical events, namely, the Anglo-Dutch wars and rivalry at sea in the seventeenth century. Many of the “Dutch” expressions were first used in England at that time, during fierce naval competition between England and the Netherlands. British people used “Dutch” to refer to something bad. Now, of course, the British and the Dutch have a friendly relation. But the word “Dutch” is still used in almost the same way as it once was long time ago.
The “Dutch” idioms can be classified into several types.
First of all, some of the “Dutch” expressions are related to wine because the Dutch were regarded as bibber. The phrase “Dutch courage” is a slang term for courage gained after drinking alcohol. It is synonymous with liquid courage. The term is purported to have its origin in the battles of the seas. (Liu, 2003:131) It is said that the Dutch navy feared all other navies especially the English navy. It was rationalized that they must have drunk alcohol before battle to relieve their fear. A Dutch bargain or Dutch agreement, which is made between men who have drunk too much alcohol, is an uneven, one-sided deal. When the host is the first to get drunk in the party, it can be called a Dutch feast.
Second, the British used to consider the Dutch very stingy about money. The Dutch always split the bill when whey went out for dinner. Based on this conception, Dutch treat referred to a dinner at which the invited guests should pay for their own share of food and drinks. A Dutch party is a party to which each guest contributes some food and drink. Today, Dutch treat has a slightly different meaning from that. When friends go out to have fun, each person pays his own share if they agree to Dutch treat or go Dutch.
Third, in the eyes of the British, the Dutch were rude, irritable and weird. To get one’s Dutch up is to flare up. To do a Dutch act means to commit suicide. If a person talks to you in a very severe way, he is talking like a Dutch uncle. This phrase emerges for the reason that the Dutch had a reputation for raising their children in a firm way. (Li, 2009:52)
Not only expressions but also proverbs can convey national slurs. The Dutch has taken Holland can be interpreted as follows: a man who has seen little regards many things as strange and comment excitedly on a commonplace thing out of inexperience.
However, people using these expressions may not be well aware that they are hurting the Netherlands’ national pride. Almost all the “Dutch” phrases contain negative connotation. The situation makes the Netherlands feel uncomfortable and low national respect. Thus, in 1934, Netherlands’ government commanded that officials should avoid use the word “Dutch”. (Hou, 2009:65) In spite of the effort, today the derogatory sense of the word still exists and people continue using it to refer to something negative.
3.1.2 The “French” idioms
In the modern history of the world, France and the Great Britain rival each other in political, economic, cultural and military competition. Many British idioms have recorded the country’s discord with the French.
French leave is an abrupt and unannounced departure without saying farewell to the host. The phrase can be traced back to 18th century. (Wang, 1999:45) From the view of character, the French were amiable and easygoing by nature. It was their custom that guests invited to dinner would depart without giving thanks or saying farewell to their host. To the British, in particular the English, whose reputed quality is reserved, leaving without saying goodbye is ill-mannered, discourteous and shows no respect for others.
There goes the proverb “when the Ethiopian is white, the French will love the English.” In reality, The Ethiopians are dark-skinned and it is impossible that their skin will turn white. By using this logic analysis, neither is it possible that the French will love the English. The proverb implies that the state of hostility between the two countries would not end.
Another proverb goes, “The Italians are wise before the deed, the Germans in the deed, the French after the deed.” (Jiao, 2009:59) By comparing France with another two countries, the idiom carries a message that the French are wooden-headed and witless.
Historically, it was suggested by the Americans that some of the “French” expressions should be changed. Yet¼Œit was too early to be cheerful for the French. Here goes the story. In the first half of the year 2003, France opposed the plan “shock and awe” adopted by the American-led United Nations forces toward Iraq. This stirred up American disgust toward the French. A television host of FOX news, one of the American news media, called for a boycott of French goods. It was demanded that in the English language French toast and French fry should be changed into freedom toast and freedom fry while French leave should be reserved. (Du, 2005:23) Very interestingly, it seemed that the Americans wanted to keep the “French” expressions with derogatory sense and meanwhile discard others with neutral meaning. In such case, The French could do nothing but sulk.
3.1.3 The “Chinaman/Chinese” idioms
In modern times, China cut off itself from the outside world. As a result of a seclusion policy in foreign relations, China lost an opportunity for development and fell behind. Thus, the western countries showed contempt to this poor and backward nation with weak comprehensive power. Chink and Chinaman have long been used as disparaging terms for the Chinese. Many figures of speech in the English reflected a history of Chinese being insulted.
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Chinaman’s chance essentially means an extremely slim chance or no chance at all for someone to accomplish his goal or successfully do an action. In 1978, American publisher Scribner published the novel Chinaman’s chance by Ross Thomas. Regardless of the content of the novel, people sought the origin of the title Chinaman’s chance. The historical context of the phrase dates from the goldrush days of California in the middle of the 19th century when many Chinese came here to work as laborers. (Jiao, 2009:58) Their job was demanding and very dangerous but lower-paying. The Chinese faced higher taxes, denial of citizenship and equal rights to white man. Chinaman’s chance truly depicts the hard life of Chinese in that city. Another expression occurred in the same period. To play someone for a Chinaman is to treat him as a fool.
Many of the “Chinese” expressions heard in English are used as pejorative.
A Chinese copy is an exact copy of an original. Chinese slavery means virtual
slavery. Chinese compliment is used to describe a man who speaks one way and thinks another. Chinese fire drill refers to confusional and chaotic state, large but ineffective exercise, or the act of a group of individuals achieving nothing. If someone has Chinese restaurant syndrome (Wang, 1999:43), he may feel headache, vomiting, swirl or sweating caused by eating Chinese food that contains monosodium glutamate. Research suggests that there is no evidence of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome and it is nothing more than urban legend.
3.1.4 The “Irishman” and “Irish” idioms
The United Kingdom is made up of four nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Of these four nations, the English people account for the majority of the population and feel most British. They have a strong sense of national pride and ridicule the rest of the kingdom. They would verbally attack Scotland, Wales, and in particular Ireland. We can take a look at some of the “Irishman” and “Irish” phrases.
Irishman’s dinner/feast actually means apastia. Irishman’s promotion represents demotion.
Irish diamond is not diamond at all. It is just crystal or stone. Irish evidence is seen as perjury. Irish compliment is backhanded compliment. If someone makes an Irish bull, he provides a paradoxical statement. To get one’s Irish up (Hou,2009:64) means to lose one’s temper. A similar expression is to get one’s Dutch up.
There are also “Irish” proverbs with offensive implications: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity; Put an Irishman on the spit, and you can always get another to baste him. (Mao, 2003:143)
3.1.5 The “Welsh” idioms
The word “Welsh” shares the same fate of “Irish”.
To Welsh is to repudiate a debt. According to English people, the phrase originates from 19th century when many Welsh people made a living by betting on horse racing. (Liu, 1999:79) They were said to have been extremely cunning because they always tried to get out of paying money when they lost the bet. Thus, in the eyes of English people, they became notorious for such a bad quality. Therefore, to Welsh on somebody is to go back on one’s word. To Welsh on one’s debt is to rat on one’s debt
As we know, England is a relatively rich nation when compared with Wales. Phrases like Welsh comb and Welsh carpet are used by the English people to mock at Welsh poverty.
3.1.6 The “Greek” idioms
The word “Greek” is associated with trick, cattiness, and danger.
Greek gift can not be interpreted literally. If a person receives a Greek gift, he should be cautious because the gift is given with the intention of tricking the recipient and causing harm to him. A proverb derives from this expression, “I fear the Greeks, even when they come with the gifts”.
Greek trust indicates unreliability.
When Greek meets Greek, and then comes the tug of war. It means that when enemies face each other, their eyes blaze with hate. Fires are rekindled between the two sides and old wounds opened up again.
When people encounter something incomprehensible, they would say it is all Greek to me to show that they don’t understand at all.
3.2 Reflection of racial discrimination
3.2.1 Discrimination against Native American
Before starting this part, I want to make it clear that all the idioms below come from On English Language against Non-English Nationalities by Mao Fasheng except those with special notes.
An Indian giver refers to a person who gives a gift but require something in return later. This expression originates from around 1765 and the American colonial days. (Li, 2009:57) To the early American Indians, gifts were simply form of trade goods. A person gave a gift in hope of something of equivalent in return. However, to the European settlers, such kind of custom appeared to be insulting. In their minds, gifts were freely given rather than for trade practices. The original meaning of the expression was only the expectation of a gift in return. By the late 1800s, its sense shifted to describe someone who demands return while giving. Indian giving is a similar terms used to satirize the giver. We should handle an Indian gift with caution as well as Greek gift. The present is given by someone with expectation of receiving another from us.
An Indian sign is a magic spell cast on a person to control him or bring him bad luck. If a girl is able to put or have an Indian sign on a boy, then she fascinates him perhaps with her dazzling loveliness.
Americans regarded the Indians as dumb, irritable and evil-minded. Terms like cigar-store Indian, dumb Indian, wooden Indian portray a negative image for the Indians as boring and foolish. To get one’s Indian up is to get mad or be inflamed with rage. It shares the same meaning as two other figures of speech “get one’s Dutch up” and “get one’s Irish up”. The proverb “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (Liu, 2003:131) characterizes the American relationship with Indians.
3.2.2 Discrimination against African-American
In American history¼ŒAfrican-Americans were subject to discrimination and their life were sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation. They were faced with poor living conditions and harsh working environments. Being despised, hated, disgraced and oppressed by racists, they lived in misery and suffering. Even today, in the society of more advanced civilization, the phenomenon of racial discrimination still exists. Racism is still a sensitive and serious issue that the world seeks to solve. From the view of language, racial slurs are to be found everywhere.
Nigger, niggra, niggruh and Negro (Jiao, 2009:57) are common slavery-imposed epithets with evident insult to the black. They remind people the bitter period of slavery when African-Americans struggled for freedom. To work like a negro/nigger refers to somebody who works or is forced to work very hard just like a slave.
Even in literature, we can see racial slurs in world-famous works. For example, some African-Americans complained about the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. They claimed that the writer should not have used the word “nigger” in the book. The following dialogue, in particular, stirs up strong discontent amongst African-Americans.
“Good gracious.” Anybody hurt?
“No’m killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky because sometimes people do get hurt.” 
We should try not to get involved in the issue of racial discrimination; otherwise we may place ourselves in criticism and trouble. In 1999, David Howard, the aide of Washington, DC mayor Anthony Williams resigned after being accused of using a racial slur.  Mr. Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate, used the word “niggardly” when delivering the budget report in one of the regular meetings by municipal government. As a matter of fact, niggardly is defined as stingy or ungenerous and does not have any racial connotations. Yet, staff members present which was made up of two blacks and another white were offended by the word. Soon after the meeting, the rumor began to spread that Howard had used the racial slur “nigger”. Howard said such rumor “has severely compromised my effectiveness as the District’s Public Advocate and in the best interest of my office, I resigned.”  Howard was innocent in this issue. The real problem is that niggardly has a similar pronunciation with nigger. An important lesson we can learn out of this is that people especially government officials should avoid using not only racial slurs but also words sounding similar to them.
4. Negative effects of linguistic discrimination
4.1 Verbal counterback in other languages against English slurs
Linguistic discrimination in English would surely result in verbal attack from those countries that have been insulted by English-speaking countries. It is normal to find ethnic slurs in other languages than English. For instance, in the French language, les sombikes (Liu, 1999:81), which has the same meaning as “son of a bitch” in the English language, is used as a disparaging term for an American. The phrase dates from the First World War when American soldiers liked to shout the expletive “son of a bitch”.
As a matter of fact, almost any language contains ethnic slurs. It may be just to say that any ethnic in the world is apt to glorify its own group and meanwhile look down upon others. This sense of national superiority, more or less, is reflected in the language.
4.2 Negative impact on international relations
Based on numerous historical events, linguistic discrimination against other nations and races mirrors barriers, conflicts, and hatred between different ethnic groups. It is a social problem that cannot be neglected. The usage of slurs can be detrimental to international relations. It exerts negative impact on social equity, stability and harmony. History teaches us that it has clearly influenced national unity and integrity in such a country of great ethnic complexity as America.
As long as inter-ethnic inequality and contractions exist in human society, they would find expression in the language. Conversely¼Œlinguistic discrimination would trigger hostility and conflicts between ethnics. They together initiate a vicious cycle and people get trapped in it.
5. State of English linguistic discrimination in modern society
5.1 Common existence of English linguistic discrimination
It is undeniable that the phenomenon of English linguistic discrimination is still very common in modern society. People use those idioms in daily life, consciously or not. They may say a slur without recognizing that it is offensive and may cause them trouble. Why are discriminatory language still used today even if hostilities ended hundreds of years ago? As is discussed in chapter 1.1, language develops and evolves with society. Once words are given derogatory meanings, it would be difficult to change or eliminate them. “It often happens that language is more conservative than civilization, material as well as moral. Objects, institutions, ideas, scientific concepts change in the course of time; yet in many cases the name is retained and thus helps to ensure a sense of tradition and continuity.” (Ullmann 1977:198)
5.2 Sign of improvements on the phenomenon
Fortunately, we have seen evidence of improvements on the phenomenon of national and racial discrimination in the English language.
For example, In the September of 2001, the mountain Chink’s Peak in the Pocatello Range in Idaho State got its new official name Chinese Peak from the United States Board of Geographic Names. The original name Chink’s Peak was deemed offensive and racist. Some people especially Chinese Americans strongly requested th
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