A Semantic Analysis of “slave” and variations of the “N-word” in Mark Twain novels


Peter Cao


Curt Burgess, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside

Current controversy exists that has resulted from school boards and parents wanting to remove classic novels, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from school libraries or replace the “N-word” with the word “slave” within these texts because the use of the “N-word” is viewed by most as an egregious term with strong racist intention. Etymological research reveals that during Twain’s era, the N-word was relatively neutral in meaning, and it was not until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that the word acquired its pejoratively racist connotation. In order to test the hypothesis that the word was used in a neutral sense in early literature, a semantic model was built using the texts from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then compared to the results of a model built from USENET text from the 1990’s. The comparisons were made by an analysis of the semantic neighborhoods of various forms of the “N-word” and the word “slave” using the HAL (Hyperspace Analogue to Language) memory model of semantics. The results are consistent with the reported etymological history. A further analysis of semantic distances between the word “slave” and a set of negative and positive emotionally-valenced words means that “slave” can contain more than only derogatory attributes, and suggests that certain problems with the substitution of the word “slave” for the “N-word”, would significantly misconstrue the semantic usage of these words.

Presented by:

Peter Cao


Saturday, November 23, 2013


3:55 PM — 4:10 PM


Mendenhall/Greenleaf Gallery

Presentation Type:

Oral Presentation