Thursday, 28 June 2012

*@!$@!! Russian swear words

I have an unfortunate tendency, when very upset, to want to lapse into nineteenth-century English. I am not sure how people nowadays are expected to react when their sister runs off with some unsuitable man or when someone insults them, but I just want to throw my gloves on the floor and tell the offender my second will be round in the morning. There is something in the back of my mind, though, that tells me I should be swearing at the person instead.

Swearing at people is best avoided in foreign languages, even apart from the obvious rudeness, since swearing is all about attitude, which is much harder to pull off with a funny accent. Plus you really need to understand a lot about the nuances of the words to use them properly, otherwise we are back to sounding silly or just odd rather than threatening. The upside of all this is that it is also very difficult to be insulted in a foreign language. Even if you technically know the words are very rude, you don't FEEL that they are rude, and hence it is almost impossible to take offense.

Russian swear words, it turns out, are much "stronger" than British swear words, in the sense that you can't actually use them on TV, radio or in print, whereas I think you are allowed to swear as much as you like after nine o'clock in the evening in the UK. There are two groups of Russian swear words: one set that are pretty bad but are in fact usable, although not in polite company, in front of children etc, and one set that are much stronger and are basically not usable if you are an educated person (this group of words is called мат (mat)). There are four basic words in this group, but if four words is not enough there are basically limitless variations - you can add prefixes or suffixes or combine them with other words. Four words should be four times as many as you need though - Dostoevsky wrote that a Russian could express the entire range of his feelings with one word of мат. But I guess people like to be creative. A quick Google search will take you to this site, which lists an unbelievable 1700 words or expressions you shouldn't use. Or this Russian language tutorial site, which hilariously has a lesson on Russian swear words between discussions on meeting people and shopping.

There is a long history of intolerance of the use of мат. Catherine the Great issued a special proclamation banning all use of one of the words. Under the Soviets you could end up with a fifteen day jail sentence for using мат, and even today public use of these words is punishable by a fine and possible arrest (although in practice this is rarely enforced). According to a 2003 article in the New Yorker, the prejudice against these words came in with Christianity in the 10th century. The theory is that these words, which are all to do with sex, were previously part of a pagan fertility cult the Christian missionaries were trying to stamp out. They apparently still sound, to Russian ears, fairly blasphemous (and Russians are overall more religious than people in the UK so this matters more). For example, one of the most basic formulae implies that the mother of the person you are talking to slept with the devil. On the other hand, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev and Chekov all used мат in their writing, and it shows up in a lot of folk tales. Some people feel that while it can be rude, it isn't necessarily - it can just be expressive. That article in the New Yorker referred to it as "more of a philosophy than a language", indicating everything from power dynamics to sincerity, with the real meaning of the words heavily dependent on intonation and context and thus almost impossible to translate. I don't think you'd find anyone saying that about British swear words. Or maybe I just don't know enough about them.


  1. Слов немного — ну, может, пяток...
    Но какие из них комбинации!

    (с) Александр Иванов

  2. You are learning a lot of Russian! My HRH (Horrible Russian Husband) doesn't let me use these words, but good on you for learning them!
    Hummus is dead easy to make -- just whiz chick peas in the food processor, add some olive oil and then (wait for it) 5 ice cubes. I know -- it sounds INSANE but it works.

  3. For the record, I have not run off with an unsuitable man. But I now might, just to find out what you'd do.