The book “Nur ein Depp würde dieses Buch nicht kaufen“ (Only an idiot wouldn’t buy this book) by Oksana Haryliv amusingly captures everything you need to know about swearing. (in German)
“Schleich di, du Oaschloch!” (Get lost, asshole!) This verbal abuse that a Viennese man flung at the fleeing perpetrator of the terrorist attacks in the inner city of Vienna on 2 November 2020 immediately went viral and was later voted “saying of the year”. For Oksana Havryliv, this goes to show how a slur – at the time a defensive reaction – can eventually build cohesion and solidarity. The Ukrainian-born German studies researcher has even seen the phrase on a crescent roll in a coffee shop’s pastry display.
Putting up resistance and creating cohesion: these are two out of more than 20 functions of cursing the profanity researcher has identified in her studies. For more than 30 years, she has been investigating the way the Viennese swear. Why do we curse? How has profane language changed over the course of time and across generations? And what are the differences between cursing cultures in various languages? Her recently published book “Nur ein Depp würde dieses Buch nicht kaufen” (Only an idiot wouldn’t buy this book) sums up her research results in a graphic, humorous and accessible way.
Ever since a scholarship by OeAD, Austria’s Agency for Education and Internationalisation, enabled the German studies scholar to spend time in Vienna for the first time in 1984, she has been fascinated by cursing. She was immediately charmed by the Viennese dialect and the wealth of colorful expressions it contains, Havryliv, who is 52, recounts. The language of the city was simply nothing like the German she had studied and heard up until then. The German language has a long tradition in her hometown of Lviv, which, under the name of Lemberg, was once part of the Habsburg empire. In western Ukraine, this era is jocularly referred to as “the times of Grandma Austria”.
As Havryliv attended a school with an extended offer of German courses, she started to learn the language already from the age of seven. In this era of the Soviet Union, taking trips abroad was impossible, so foreign languages became a key to the world for her. They enabled her to travel to what was then East Germany as a foreign exchange student already as a child.
This experience proved decisive for her later career choices. “East Germany was so much more exciting than the Soviet Union. Punks with dyed hair roamed the street, chewing gum. It was the Wild West!” she recalls. At school, she had been told to be grateful for not having to grow up under the yoke of the capitalist West but in the freedom-loving Soviet Union instead. But looking towards West Berlin from the TV tower at Berlin’s Alexander square, first doubts crept up on her: “So many lights and colors. It can’t be such a bad place after all,” she remembers thinking, smiling at the memory.
She soon formed a plan: graduate from German studies and travel the Socialist countries as a tour guide. She always found creative ways to practice her language skills during her studies at the University of Lviv: together with fellow students, she used to march into the dormitories and invite students from Eastern Germany to parties. In 1991, Ukraine gained independence. In 1994, the researcher with a sense of humor started working on her doctoral thesis on cursing in contemporary German literature with a focus on Austria – and soon discovered the wealth of profanity employed by authors such as Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek and Werner Schwab.
When she traveled to Vienna for the first time in 1994, she was not only fascinated by the poetic melody of the Viennese dialect, she also made another important discovery: cursing seemed to be a part of everyday speech. This was an entirely new approach. So far, little research had been conducted on aggressive speech acts in everyday language, which not only subsumes verbal abuse but also swearing, brutal commands, threats and curses.
A Lise Meitner scholarship funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) enabled her to embark on comprehensive field studies in 2006, which she continued in the framework of an Elise Richter project, also funded by the FWF, in 2012. Her findings: swearing covers a wide range of functions. Only eleven percent of verbal abuse is actually intended to insult somebody. While the most important function is catharsis – letting off steam – swearing can also bring people closer together and foster a sense of solidarity. And sometimes it simply fills the silence. In the past ten years, swearing to process negative emotions has increased, while lovingly calling somebody names has become less common.
Particularly men and teenagers still like to use salty language as it signals closeness, which shows, for instance, in greetings such as “Servas, du Wappler” (Hi, douche). Particularly among teenagers, crude language serves several functions: showing dominance, setting themselves apart from others, supporting each other or provoking somebody, to name just a few examples. Jokingly calling somebody names can also be intended to provide comfort or express admiration, which is the case in examples such as the appreciative appellations “Du Luder!” (You whore!) or “Du gutmütiger Depp!“ (You sweet fool!). When Havryliv asked Viennese people for possible reasons for the decline of humorous cursing, she learned that an increasingly multi-cultural society was making them cautious about using traditional Viennese expressions for fear they would be misunderstood, particularly by people from other cultures.
In general, expletives are used across all strata of society and regardless of the level of education. There is a difference, however, in how swearing is perceived. Women are particularly offended by disparaging remarks targeting their looks. Men are sensitive when their performance is questioned, be that in their jobs or in bed.
The researcher emphasizes the clear distinction between verbal aggressions and verbal abuse, as the terminology is often used interchangeably. “Verbal abuse is a broader phenomenon; it does not necessarily entail an aggressive speech act.” Havryliv teaches workshops at schools to foster awareness of such differences, encourage people to use language consciously and practice nonviolent communication as well as reflect on the impact of the language they use.
In a science communication project funded by the Austrian Science Fund, she collaborated with students in an investigation into the reasons, types and functions of verbal aggressions encountered at school. Together with twelve individual school classes in Vienna, she explored when and how verbal aggressions occur at school and how negative emotions could be processed without insulting anybody. The students collected swear words, interviewed their peers and discussed their results.
“YouTubers, rappers and influencers have a strong impact,” Havryliv reports. While ten years ago, teenagers used racist slurs alluding to somebody’s ethnic background, mental and physical disabilities are targeted more frequently today, as popular insults such as “Behinderte:r” (retard) and “Opfer” (victim) show. In her interpretation, this is the case because “teenagers seem to be more sensitive regarding ethnicity today”.
Sexuality is a core component in teenager’s swearing, as demonstrated in “Wichser” (jerk) or “Hure” (whore). The more peculiar, the better, Havryliv reports. Compared to adults, there are greater gender-specific differences in teenagers’ cursing. “Ritualistically insulting somebody’s mother is something that mostly boys do, and also only while they are still in school,” the researcher shares.
In the past years, Havryliv has been particularly interested in how profanity changes in a multicultural society. Certain swear words have different functions in various cultures. “Oida” (originally: old person) has developed from an address to a mere filler, comparable to the way “fuck” is used in Anglo-American culture. The researcher points out that the ways cursing, the perception of profanity and also reactions to swearing change in a multicultural society are still underexplored. “Every culture has its own taboos. But my research is also about sensitizing people and preventing violence,” she says. This is why a neutral statement such as “your sister is pretty”, possibly uttered with positive intentions, can also be interpreted as an insult.
Every cultural sphere has its own cursing tradition. In the German-language area, this culture has been somewhat fixated on excrements and the anus; in Anglo-American countries and also the Balkans, swearing is dominated by the topic of sexuality. Countries in which the church has had a large impact such as Italy and Spain have a religion-based cursing culture. In the Middle East, insulting relatives is the way to swear. These cursing cultures are not neatly separated, and they have been evolving over time. “Due to the impact of films, we are now also seeing insults such as ‘Fick deine Mutter’ (Fuck your mother) more frequently,” Havryliv says. Vulgar expressions commonly used as fillers in Slavic countries are also becoming more common in Vienna. Translated in a literal way, they seem to denote sexual perversions, but in reality they don’t carry much meaning in their languages of origin and are simply interjections comparable to “Shit” or “Damn”.
Havryliv made an important observation both during the coronavirus pandemic and following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces: in times of crises, language use tends to get more creative, resulting in graphic new expressions created by merging words. The coronavirus pandemic produced neologisms such as “Covidiot” (a portmanteau of COVID and idiot), “Alleinachten” (merging the German words for alone and Christmas) and “Coronials” (a combination of corona and millennials). “While we were socially distancing in real life, our words were doing the opposite,” the linguist shares a fascinating insight into this compensation function. In this context, swear words are mainly used to foster solidarity.
How strongly swearing can function as an act of resistance was shown in the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops on 24 February 2022. When a Russian warship approached Snake Island in the Black Sea with an order to surrender, Roman Hrybov, a Ukrainian soldier, replied with a Russian phrase that roughly translates to “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” The phrase went viral, was printed on T-shirts and posters and turned into a symbol of resistance. In April of the same year, the Ukrainian postal services printed a postage stamp depicting the scene.
Language is a living phenomenon and reacts to social changes with neologisms and changes in meaning. “War metaphors, such as ‘bombarding someone with questions’, saying that something very good is ‘the bomb’, or the ‘culture or information wars’ suddenly lose their metaphorical meaning when there is an actual war going on,” the Germanist says. This goes to show how important it is to use language carefully.
Oksana Havryliv has a real problem with the phrase “war in Ukraine”. “This phrase completely hides the aggressor,” she says. Regarding the consequences of the war on daily life in the German-speaking countries such as rising prices, the image is further contorted as problems are associated with Ukraine instead of with Russia. “We should use the correct term, which is ‘Russian war of aggression against Ukraine’, or at least ‘Russia’s war’,” she pleads. This would put a focus on the aggressor in this conflict. Havryliv believes that more suitable phrasing would lead to different outcomes in surveys related to the war. She provides an example: in a Unique research survey carried out in Austria in February 2022, 65 percent of respondents replied “no” when asked “Should Ukraine continue to fight?” A more adequate phrasing that puts a focus on the attacker and creates awareness of different kinds of war (a war of aggression vs. a defensive war) would be: “Should Russia end the war and retreat from all occupied territories?”
Havryliv believes that more suitable phrasing would lead to different outcomes in surveys related to the war. She provides an example: in a Unique research survey carried out in Austria in February 2022, 65 percent of respondents replied “no” when asked “Should Ukraine continue to fight?” A more adequate phrasing that puts a focus on the attacker and creates awareness of different kinds of war (a war of aggression vs. a defensive war) would be: “Should Russia end the war and retreat from all occupied territories?”
Whenever she is invited to an interview, the Ukrainian researcher makes a point to emphasize how thankful her people are for the generous reception and support by Austrians particularly in the first year of the war. She also mentions the support and solidarity in academia, citing special programs for Ukrainian researchers offered by OeAD, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Science Fund as examples. Within this framework, she recruited Ukrainian researchers to offer courses for Ukrainian children as part of the Children’s University initiative. She personally got to know many scholarship recipients and can only confirm how grateful the young Ukrainians are for these opportunities.
Oksana Havryliv was a pioneer when she started to explore cursing in everyday life in Vienna in 2006 in the framework of an FWF program. The Ukrainian-born Germanist investigates when and how people swear, which functions verbal aggressions serve, how profanity changes across the generations in a multicultural society and how verbal aggression differs from verbal abuse. She has written more than 90 linguistic publications (including three monographs and a German-Ukrainian dictionary of swear words). Her most recent work is a popular-science book titled “Nur ein Depp würde dieses Buch nicht kaufen” (Only an idiot wouldn’t buy this book), which provides an overview of her findings obtained in many years of research.