Verbal aggression has many functions. The most important one is letting off steam, as the German studies scholar Oksana Havryliv found out in her research. © Benjamin Furtlehner/University Vienna

Tailgating, cutting off, braking abruptly. – In traffic, we encounter annoying situations every day. In order to vent one’s anger, sounding off helps, and it is all the easier when one is driving alone. “Verbal aggression is actually most frequently found among people driving cars”, confirms Oksana Havryliv from the University of Vienna. At 68 percent, this indirect form of ranting, where there is no direct listener, is the most frequent way of verbally letting off steam. This form also encompasses aggressive thoughts, in such cases where for example direct tirades could have dire consequences, such as at a meeting with one’s boss, business partners or customers.

Mainly a purging function

Building on a Lise-Meitner project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the German studies scholar Oksana Havryliv, who works at the University's German Studies Department, collected data from 36 interviews and more than 200 questionnaires within the context of the FWF’s Elise-Richter programme in support of women scholars. In the recently concluded project Verbal Aggression and Social Variables Havryliv interviewed people of all ages (between 13 and 80), across all social strata and with equal gender balance (50:50). Unlike the previous assumption of scientists who considered ranting, cursing, or verbal threats to be acts of violence aimed at hurting or insulting others, the investigations of the young scholar revealed about 20 different functions, among them especially useful aspects of verbal aggression. Back in 2009, Havryliv was already able to confirm her hypothesis that ranting has a cathartic function, whereas violent or insulting intentions played a role for just 11 percent of those questioned, then just as now. Over the course of the past seven years, in which the researcher conducted two large surveys, comparison between them reveals that the most important function of verbal aggression – working off negative emotions – has even increased from 64 to 73 percent, while jocular or benign use of invective dropped from 25 to 16 percent.

Jocular use is decreasing

The jocular use (mock verbal aggression) of invective is especially popular among friends, signalling closeness. It occurs when young people meet and greet each other with phrases like: “Seavas, du Wappler“ (approx. “Hey, you blockhead ”). This aspect can even be found in the etymology of the German word schimpfen: in Old and Middle High German it meant “joking” and “playing”, and the sense of “deriding” developed only later. As a rule, young people use aggressive language more intentionally than adults. In their case, the “coarse language” takes on different functions: presenting oneself as superior, distancing oneself from others, expressing mutual solidarity or as a deliberate provocation directed at new classmates or even at adults, etc. In other instances the jocular use of pejorative terms, i.e. swearwords, acts as reinforcement, to express support or admiration, such as in “Du Luder” (approx. “Way to go, bitch!”) or “Du gutmütiger Depp!” (approx. “You starry-eyed moron!”). The fact that humorous swearword usage has been replaced by the venting of negative emotions can be attributed to a changing social context against the backdrop of migration. Particularly older people said that they nowadays tended to refrain from being verbally aggressive in public “since you never know how others might react”.

Social status, gender and perception

“Women tend to use expressions of greater metaphorical power and reflect about their own behaviour more”, is how Havryliv summarises the results from a gender perspective. “That women are more prone to engage in self-reflection is illustrated both in the comments in the questionnaires and when it comes to talking about emotions and situations.” In this respect, aggressive language aims primarily at presenting boundaries by saying things like “I’m freaking out”, ”this is the bloody limit” or “cut the crap”. Men tend to address their invective more directly at objects such as computers or cars. – As a general principle, however, there is swearing, cursing and griping across all social strata, among academics just as much as among people of more modest education. Those at whom the swearing is addressed react in different ways. Women are more easily offended when the insult concerns their appearance, whilst men are sensitive to criticism of their performance, whether professional or sexual.

Self-aggression and verbal violence

It is not rare for anger and aggression to be directed at oneself. Scientists tended to believe that self-aggression was more common among women. Havryliv’s data do not confirm that. “Both men and women show the same tendency towards self-admonishment”, explains the scientist in the interview with scilog. The researcher considers it important to distinguish between verbal aggression and verbal violence. – Often, the terms are treated interchangeably. “Verbal violence is a broader phenomenon which can be enacted without using aggressive language.” In order to sensitise people about such differences and help them reflect on the impact of the language they use, Havryliv also runs workshops at schools. She has just submitted a proposal to the FWF’s science communication programme to enable her to continue these workshops.

Dialect is the language of choice for ranting

Oksana Havryliv has been dealing with the topic of verbal aggression for about 20 years, placing her focus on Viennese dialect. She was born in Ukraine, but has been living in Vienna for many years and has developed a special ear for the onomatopoetic terms used in Viennese dialect. She explains that the use of dialect for diatribes makes sense: “A language you feel at home in makes it easier to vent your emotions.” Viennese dialect is not just a good source for invective. Havryliv finds “the contact with other languages, such as Slav languages, is particularly interesting”. The latter often use swearwords simply to fill gaps. This “expletive usage” has meanwhile also become popular in German, especially among young people.

Personal details Oksana Havryliv graduated in German Studies in the Ukraine. In the 1990s she first came to Vienna with a scholarship and discovered her interest in the way the Viennese rant and rave. Her thesis focused on invective in modern German literature, including the works of Werner Schwab, H.C. Artmann and Thomas Bernhard. In early 2017, the scholar completed her research on the social dimensions of verbal aggression within the context of an Elise-Richter grant from the FWF at the German Studies Department at the University of Vienna.

Publications (in German)

Havryliv, Oksana: Verbale Aggression: das Spektrum der Funktionen. In: Linguistik Online Sprache und Gewalt/Language and Violence 3/2017, Band 82
Havryliv, Oksana: Aggressive Sprechakte: im Dienste der Empörung. In: Alexandra Millner, Bernard Oberreither, Wolfgang Straub (Hg.). Empörung! Besichtigung einer Kulturtechnik. Beiträge aus Literatur- und Sprachwissenschaft. Wien: Facultas, 2015
Havryliv, Oksana: Verbale Aggression. Formen und Funktionen am Beispiel des Wienerischen. Frankfurt am Main u. a.: Peter Lang, 2009