New research on old swear words

20 mars 2014

‘Bad words’ have always existed. In a new book, a group of researchers from the Nordic countries present the latest research on swearing. How are swear words used and which attitudes have existed towards men’s and women’s swearing? What words did you use if you wanted to say something really foul in the 17th century?

A group of language researchers from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Lithuania started collaborating in 2010 to promote research on swear words in the Nordic languages, a field which has previously been neglected in language research. The collaboration has resulted in the book Swearing in the Nordic Countries.

The authors look closely at current and historic use of swear words, attitudes towards swearing in different age groups, swearing in media, as well as how swear words are passed from one language to another.

“The bad words have linguistic and social functions that we want to understand. Swear words reveal things about us and the society we live in, about our relationships and values, both then and now”, says Ulla Stroh-Wollin, senior lecturer of Nordic languages at Uppsala University.

In her chapter of the book, Ulla Stroh-Wollin discusses swearing from a historic perspective. Her article is based on studies of 45 theatrical plays from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As opposed to most other types of historic texts, dramas tend to contain some swearing. The play writers use swear words to characterise the different roles in the play, which partly makes up for the fact that the dialogues are fictitious.

The studies show that before the mid-1700s it was likely worse to “take the Lord’s name in vain” than to use diabolical curses. Ulla Stroh-Wollin has also seen that swearing in general was at its most stigmatised during the late 19th century. Also, a person’s choice of swear words was much more clearly connected to social belonging in the early plays than in the later ones. On the other hand there was at first no clear difference regarding men’s and women’s swearing; this was something that developed. During the 19th century, only men could use swear words referring to the devil or hell.

“At this time, women couldn’t even use what we today consider to be fairly innocent replacement words such as tusan, attan or hundan”, says Ulla Stroh-Wollin.

The second Uppsala researcher featured in the book, Erik Falk, writes about insults in the 17th century. His article is based on an extensive review of several hundred court protocols from the university town Uppsala. This type of text contains a large amount of name-calling since insulted people in those days often took the offender to court. Commonly used insults were tjuv (thief), skälm (fraud) and hora (whore), as well as a great number of other foul and degrading names. For such use of language, Uppsala city court consistently sentenced offenders to fines, while the Consistory, which was the University’s court, didn’t consider name-calling as serious.

The study shows a clear difference between the town’s mainly verbal culture and the university’s culture of mainly written language. The town people perceived the foul names as baseless accusations of different crimes and social insufficiencies. And they went to the court, where the truthfulness of the names were investigated. The professors and students however did not evaluate the legitimacy of the insults. They perceived them as emotional expressions of anger and frustration.

“This contemporary, social variation in language use indicates a development where the actual, objective meanings of these insults changed into more subjective, pragmatic use in heated conversations”, says Erik Falk, senior lecturer of Swedish at the Department of Nordic Languages.

The research group behind the book calls itself “Swearing in Scandinavia”, abbreviated as SwiSca. The aim of the network is to create prerequisites for wider research on swearing.