Monday, February 22, 2016

Obscenities an Inalienable Part of Russian Language and Life, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 22 – Russians today have an “ambiguous” attitude toward obscenities, a specialist on the Russian language says. “On the one hand, there is an official prohibition of their use” in the media and even a fine for cursing in public. But on the other, many public figures and even more ordinary Russians use such terms on a regular basis.

            Snezhana Petrova notes that Russians have been using obscenities and vile language for centuries but that there is no agreement on how they began doing so or why they have continued. Some blame the Mongol conquest but that is unlikely as traveler reports show that the Mongols didn’t use obscenities (

            Others, drawing on the birch bark records of that period, say that Russians came up with these terms on their own. And still others root the Russian use of obscenities in a more general Slavic inclination to employ such terms, something that also shifts responsibility away from the Mongols.

            Petrova for her part clearly favors the last explanation and says that obscenities or filthy language (“mat”) are an inalienable part of Slavic culture and arose from words designating male or female sex organs or sexual acts.  According to one hypothesis, these became curse words as a way of expressing anger; according to another, they arose from a first use by witches.

            As Christianity spread in Russia, the often phallic statues of pre-Christian divinities were destroyed, and the vocabulary associated with them was declared “taboo. But as is said, you can’t take words out of a song and the people continued to curse.  The church in response struggled with those who used such curses.”

            Petrova points out that it should not be forgotten that “those words which [Russians] today consider curses were not so conceived in [earlier] times.”  That is shown by the fact that even Orthodox priests sometimes used some of these words in their homilies and texts about “women of easy virtue.”

            “Only relatively recently, beginning with the 18th century, did today’s vile language become such. Before that, these words designated either physiological characteristics of the human body or in general were quite ordinary words.”  But in the second half of that century, a sharp distinction emerged between the literary lexicon and ordinary speech, as a result of the rise of printing and the prohibition of the use of certain words in printed matter.

            That pattern continued “until the end of the 20th century,” Petrova continues, but many poets and writers as well as others continued to use obscenities in their “’unofficial’” productions.  Today, the attitude of Russians toward obscenities is “ambiguous,” with some official prohibitions remaining in place but increasingly ignored by various public figures.

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