Amelioration and Pejoration: A Linguistic Dialectic Between Hegel and Saussure

Joseph Turkot 

In the movement of Hegelian dialectics, the mind starts with an understanding of a particular. This particular is then recognized to be an incomplete aspect of the whole, and is negated. From this negation proceeds a sublation, creating a new ground where a truth is reached that is closer to totality. Pieces of the initial particular, and its dispersion through negation, are incorporated in the sublation. This new ground of truth is not the entirety of truth, however, and is therefore, again, only a partial truth—another particular. Again, this particular must be seen for its discreteness and negated as such. If one were to follow this logic indefinitely, it follows that through a long string of grounds, negations and sublations, one would eventually arrive at a totality—something like pure truth. Hegel would call this the Absolute Spirit, or thought thinking itself. Another important aspect of this Hegelian process is the condition that any true dialectical progression must be positive. That is to say, the end result, after the sublation, must incorporate more than the original particularity examined, and therefore be a positive increment toward whole truth—never a negative step, or a retreat from totality. What is very interesting is the application of this Hegelian model of evolution to a Saussurian understanding of language. Saussure made much of the ways in which language acts both synchronically (the entire social convention of language examined in an instant of time), and diachronically (the malleability of the system of language over time). In language, one can see a dialectical movement, and it occurs through pejoration and amelioration. In pejoration, a word becomes more vulgar over time. In amelioration, a word is elevated over time, so that it loses vulgar connotations. These two diachronic processes seem antithetical at first glance, but, when viewed in Hegelian light, they are seem to be two aspects of the same positive dialectic. When understood properly, the implication of such a positive dialectic of language, by these two diachronic processes (pejoration and amelioration), as regards the evolution of the synchronic state of signs, is that words will be culled from usage, and added, so that a trajectory toward a totality can be clearly seen. In pragmatic language, the evolution of human empathy bears out its course through this dialectical motion of linguistics.

    It can hardly be said that Hegel discovered the dialectic  of progress, but it is impossible to deny that his articulation of it was lucid enough that it understood the idea of a triadic movement of progress (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) to permeate the globe. His ideas translate to many areas of understanding—for example in science: electricity and magnetism were once seen as separate forces. When it was discovered that these two forces shared properties, the dialectical progression was to notice the way in which the two forces negated each other, and eventually sublated each other, becoming electromagnetism. Then, this same process continued later in the twentieth century when the weak nuclear force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature, was seen to share properties with the electromagnetic force. The consequence of this was the creation of the electroweak force. This process in science, where one understanding that is initially seen as a particular, only to later be sublated into some new model that is closer to totality, cleared of abstraction, seems to be redundant in many content areas of human knowledge. It goes so far that the modern goal of physicists is to sublate all models of understanding into one totality known as M-Theory. This theory would take particularities and show them as only aspects of truth, truly interrelated after all in a totality of being. While such a model of positive progress demonstrates the viability and validity of the Hegelian dialectic in science, it is also occurring in language, specifically through pejoration and amelioration.

    Pejoration is the increase of a word’s vulgarity over time. In a synchronic state, a word’s pejoration cannot be seen. One can assign a value of vulgarity to a word based upon the contrast it has to other aspects (signs) of language. Let us take, for example, the word nigger. In any synchronic language state, one could determine the particular vulgarity value of the word. This can be done by defining the word with other words. If one retreated to a synchronic snapshot of language that was dated by several hundred years, the word would have had less vulgarity than it does at present—far less. What has happened to the word over time is known as pejoration. Over time, the word has become increasingly vulgar. Not only is it despised by blacks, as it may have always been, but it is also despised now by non-racist whites. Another example of pejoration is the word silly—it once meant blessed, or even lighthearted. Over time, it came to mean ridiculousness, or stupidity even. It is tricky to compare nigger to silly because the power inherent in each word, when viewed diachronically, is so disparate. It is important to note then, that the pejoration of words is not occurring only in those that most affect society, but also in words of minor importance. Let us take for example another word—gay. Most members of society are aware of this word’s pejoration. It initially meant light-hearted, and eventually became a negative description of a homosexual. No one would want to be labeled as permanently silly, or to have their identity imbued with the word. Imagine a person whose identity was synonymous with silly. This person could hardly be taken seriously. But it would be much worse for someone to have permanently attached to their identity nigger, or gay, in the synchronic state of language where such words had their most powerful value of vulgarity. What is dialectical about these pejorations, is the very negation and sublation of them—gay, in its actual pejoration, has been negated from negativity, and sublated into a word claimed by gays themselves. Think of gay pride—this instance of empathy toward gays uses the very connotation that has been a result of a pejorative slide. In this way, the very pejoration process has been negated, and its negation, the amelioration, has yielded a new signified for the word, one in which the pejoration is subdued and culled from society. In this way, one can easily imagine that, in several generations, the word gay will lose its power as a pejorative term altogether, and perhaps disappear as an incomplete label of identity completely. Then, in that future of the dialectical process, gay may fall out of use altogether. The same application of the dialectical process is seen with the word nigger—blacks, the targets of the word’s vulgarity, have negated the pejoration, and ameliorated the word to instead to mean comrade, instead of its pejorative connotation of a despised Other. So, ordinarily, nigger means the despised other. And from its pejoration, where its usage is recognized diachronically to be increasingly negative, there arises the ameliorated negation: nigga. This word, a derivative of nigger, is a negation appropriated by blacks themselves. In this way, blacks have taken a pejoration and negated it. The sublation of nigger has given rise to nigga. This is, of course, not the end of the word’s journey. There are still those who would argue that a word cannot be appropriated by the black man, and used solely by him. The dialectic would continue in this way, as all aspects of the sign’s power to be vulgar are examined by culture and academia. In the end, the dialectical process could be seen to continue, and like gay, it would not be hard to imagine that in the end, the word itself will be culled from usage. In the very least, its power will be culled. This would result in a more empathetic society. If the world is dialectical, and meant to approach a closer proximity to totality, as Hegelian dialectics presume, then this evolution and culling of words (through their disappearance from the word set or their loss of power) seems to make sense—if there are words that cause abrasive dialectical freezing (that is to say, parsing aspects of totality into disparate and irreconcilable particulars—which will of course lead to privileged binaries), then such words would have to be culled in order for a system of language that better unifies the separate pieces of reality and shows them to be merely aspects of the same totality.

    Pejoration, and then subsequent amelioration, is only one way in which the dialectical process of language works. There is also the dialectic that begins with amelioration. In this instance, a word begins in a pejorative state, and ameliorates over time. It is dangerous, in any case, to say a word begins with a particular state (for knowledge of that would require an impossible amount of data corresponding to period/region-specific synchronic snapshot of signs), but as a crude example, let us take for example the word witch. If one takes a synchronic snapshot of the word’s connotations during the 1600s in New England, one would be hard pressed to argue there is a positive connotation possible. It seems purely negative. Witches were to be sought out and destroyed—institutions of civilization ensured this, and there is a particular impetus for such negativity in the bible, found in Exodus 22:18: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. This word, with all its negative connotations, was wrapped up with other words, seemingly tied to them impossibly, if one were looking at the situation synchronically. Take for example, devil. The word witch was closely related to devil, and it is as if the intensity of the negative connotation of each was compounded by the association one had with the other. Let’s forget for a moment that we can’t say how the words came to these particular pejorative states. What’s important to note is that while at one time these words, when attached to a person’s identity, warranted the murder of said person, they now, through the turn of history’s pages, have ameliorated to the point that they are harmless associations (in most circles). One needs only to walk down the street in New England today to see witches as ornaments at Halloween, or the devil on the jersey of a hockey player. What has happened is the amelioration of the words. By each word losing its negative power over time, and attaining to frivolity, the words are essentially culled from language—at least from language in any meaningful sort of way. Yes, one can still talk of witches as though they were real, and one can still speak of the devil as though he’s still out there, but—as Hegelian features predict—a more rational society has ensued, and through rationality, the words no longer carry such negative weight. This is the opposite process of nigger in the following sense—nigger would have started in an ameliorated state, acceptable for use within most societies and communities, despite its negative consequence. It took time for the word to truly develop enough pejoration to be lost to the white man, and negated by the target, the black man. The word went from an ameliorated state to a pejorative state. With witch, the opposite process is true. And though these processes seem entirely different—one word starting in light-hearted acceptability and decaying into non-acceptability, the other starting in non-acceptability and rising into light-hearted acceptability—they are in fact two shades of the same occurrence: What has truly happened in both cases is the dialectical movement toward a positive totality. In both cases, a word has lost a former power to permanently alienate one aspect of reality from the whole. To proclaim witch meant to name something that is apart and bad—to proclaim nigger meant to name something that is apart and bad. In the end, the words themselves, through amelioration and pejoration, have incorporated that apartness, through the dialectic, into wholeness. The particular logic by which each transformation was necessary does not have to be identical—witch, at the peak of its power, separated a part of the whole into a frozen dialectic by means of a different kind of irrationality than did nigger; in the end, whatever the irrationality, the dialectic overcomes through positive movement. But because the dialectical process is never complete, and because Hegel must be taken as a genius of metaphor of process only, we can look with some kind of accuracy upon the state of language as it exists synchronically in the present, and make fair predictions about the possible evolutions of language.

    Beginning again with the pejoration of nigger, let us look at its negation—its amelioration—which occurred in response, and propose that it is still occurring. When nigger was first corrected by dialectical processes, to approach an ameliorated state, the sign negro was viewed as a replacement. This word was later seen as too partial, and was changed to colored. Later, this again was seen as deficient, and alienating, and so was replaced by African American. Today, African American and black persist as the current ameliorations of the pejoration of nigger. To say this process is complete would be to ignore the diachronic aspect of language. If one is to make any kind of prediction about the dialectical movement of a word, one must ascertain the qualities that drive a word’s amelioration or pejoration through time. The common thread, whatever the starting point of a word’s connotation, seems to be its ability and power to alienate, and keep in alienation, some particular aspect of the whole. This aspect that is alienated can be a person, as in the word nigger, or a concept, as in the word witch. Whether merely an idea, or an actual object or subject in the world, the word acts to alienate, and keep alienated, that thing which it signifies. In this way, it as if there is sludge in an engine—that is to say, in the cyclical phases of the dialectical process (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis), there is some lack of understanding that pauses the dialectic in its second phase. This can be considered a frozen dialectical movement. When language itself is limiting, and language is the primary vehicle of dialectical progression, progress is stifled. As a result there is a dialectical process wherein language itself as a construct undergoes a triadic movement—a negation of limitation within a sign network negates to delimitation within a sign network. The final sublation of the sign network then is a new value of categorization for pieces of language within the sign network that formerly limited. Such categorizations would be more progressively delimiting. In practical terms, using our former example, nigger would in former history be limiting—it would prevent a certain kind of person inclusion as part of a whole within the framework of human people in general. As long as the word possessed this limiting power, and was used in any given synchronic state of language, the targeted subjects would then be prevented incorporation into the totality. That is to say, black people should be kept separate, and never included as part of humanity. This is historically documented in many ways in America, in example by the use of providing a fraction (sign) by which niggers would be associated: ?. This meant that a black person was ? of a human. As the devil and witch compounded the intensity of negativity in our former example, so did the association of the fraction with the word nigger, along with any other easily recalled examples of limiting language that required a dialectical combination of amelioration and pejoration over time to be eventually culled from language’s pool of words with the power to limit. That is not to say that the word nigger is not still limiting, but it is to say that its power of limiting, when viewed diachronically, is drastically different than its former state.

    As evolution and dialectical processes are seen in science, as mentioned in the opening paragraphs, so too can these processes be seen in language. Think of natural selection—in natural selection, those organisms that are least fit are deselected. They are weaker, and so stand less of a chance to reproduce, and then eventually, die off. The same might be said of the dialectical process of language. Over time, certain words, ones that carry more resistance to truth, will cause friction and become burdensome to those that continue to use them. In this way, those who seek the path of least resistance, a way closer to totality instead of fragmentation, will abandon limiting words. They will still exist perhaps, but they’re connotative and limiting powers will be abandoned in future synchronic states. Survival, especially in a global village that is modern society with its internet, will depend upon a system of language that best represents reality. If even in the most stringent of empirical scientists there is seen a natural progression toward a unification of principles, a universal theory of everything, then it is no stretch to imagine such a progression is also occurring in language—a system of language where those who do best in society abandon the words that limit, and negate such words (by whatever cultural means at their disposal) through either pejoration or amelioration. Those who do not possess this dialectical awareness will be deselected. Take for example the recent incident of Donald Sterling: He was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and also awarded a medal of honor by the NAACP. Despite this outward appearance of one who is aware of the dialectical movement of society, and of course language’s diachronicity, he was recently outed as having used extremely pejorative language as regards black people. For this, he was banned from his profession and sued, and for all intents and purposes, squandered of his livelihood. In this example, it is easily seen that his stagnation in the dialectic, his frozen comprehension of it, will become an example to others of how to be deselected from society’s good graces, and, subsequently, its opportunities. His scandal will in fact negate its own negativity on the grander scale, in its usefulness as an example for the rest of society.

    For my part, when seen from afar, I consider in current operation within synchronic language many words which possess, to a greater or lesser extent, limiting action. In that way, they work to stagnate the dialectical movement toward positive progress. In example, take the words black and white. In synchronic reality, they are effective means to theorize or discuss important issues as regards racial rights and relations. But, when viewed diachronically, they seem to be further ameliorations and pejorations of limiting words. Black is the most recent iteration of the sign to describe people of primarily sub-saharan African origin. Even this description is, however, partially inaccurate, for crawling back through time, we see that all peoples have common ancestry, and thus cannot be separated completely as disparate things. In any case, the term black then is used as a subject to predicate reality. In example, black people have the same rights as white people. In the latter statement, there is a predication about black people. We will forget whether this predication is true or false, and rather concern ourselves with whether the subject is true or false. By this logic it follows that we must affirm the following statement: There are black people. When one considers this proposition, the limiting nature of the sign black is unveiled. It is obvious that the statement is false. There are no black people. It would be accurate to say something like: There are people whose skin color is a shade of brown. But, because we have not said that, we have limited and permanently fragmented an aspect of reality. On that broken premise, we have predicated some truth about reality; in this example, that black people have the same rights as white people. It follows from this that there are no such people as white people either. Disregarding this initial fallacy, one might argue that the statement above, that there are such people whose skin color is a shade of brown, is also false. Even if this is accurate, which does not matter for this example, it is impossible to argue that the black statement is closer to reality than the brown statement. These limiting signs for subjects, regardless of the predications attached to them, halt the dialectic process by degrees because they create false difference. That is to say they create alienation. Let us consider the way in which a command like the following might play out: All black people in the room stand up. In a room where there are many people of a variety of skin colors—let’s say every shade from the palest to the darkest—only those who self-identify with the label black will stand up. One skin-tone, the opposite of what you’d expect, due to being too light, might stand up. And someone else, dark enough for you to consider black, might not. In this way, it is seen that there is no objective black. There is an objective color spectrum of radiation, known as light, but not a categorization of human being. In this way, any discourse where black is predicated, wherein it might be far better than nigger as regards its vulgarity, is still an incomplete representation. So then, where does the dialectical process take the sign black next? It may be that the sign transforms into something else, better suited to sublating the binary of white/black. It is safe to say that, whatever the future progression of the sign, it will be dialectical, and therefore, reduce alienation, not intensify it. Black may ameliorate, or it may, as I believe, pejorate into another word that is culled of its power to categorize and predicate reality.

    When viewed diachronically, and from a distant perspective, it proves useful to say that any given word is synchronically playing some role in the dialectic of language. Some words, such as silly, may be playing a small role as regards society’s evolution as a whole. Other words, such as nigger, have played a powerful role in the dialectical movement of language. With such powerful signs, there is almost an obvious visibility of progress and self-awareness. With such progress, it is hard to separate the role of language in creating empathy. It would seem, when history is viewed from a disinterested perspective, that humanity is trending, through starts and stops—two steps forward and one step back—toward a more empathetic and unified perception of reality and its parts. To see reality in a more empathetic way, one must grasp and understand the view of another, and to see in another one’s self—the pieces of the other that are inherently the same: To see the other as something that is actually a part of the self. By this progression, every separate thing is eventually incorporated into a sort of Hegelian totality. And language, being the primary way in which we predicate reality, plays no small role in the achievement of a perspective that is more inclusive of the seemingly disparate parts of reality.

    There comes from the example of Conrad’s racism this: While he has written racist remarks in The Heart of Darkness, it may be that he had no vocabulary outside of that which was racist. In the same way, what separateness there is today in labeling blacks and whites as separate entities, there may as of yet be no language to operate in which brings that separateness together in a more complete picture of reality. It is interesting to know that science and physics is one step ahead of this dialectical process as it happens in language and culture—science already accepts that we are the same, as an immutable law—each and everything, while being different, is at once the same as every other thing. If internalized, through an understanding of energy and its relation to mass, and fundamental particles, one sees how trivial the divisions are that still propagate through limiting language. And in some final sublation of the limitation of signs, in language’s own dialectical movement, signs as a network of language might be eschewed altogether by some as of yet unforeseen medium such as telepathy. In fact, science has already allowed telepathy through the burgeoning technology of Brain Machine Interfaces. While this is primarily science-fiction today, it is still easily defended given the history of the Hegelian unification of disparate features into a totalized whole.

 Works Cited

Habib, M.A.R.. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.

 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and J. B. Baillie. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Print.

 Lane, Richard J. Global Literary Theory: An Anthology. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

 Saussure, Ferdinand De. Course in General Linguistics. New York: n.p., 1959. Print.