Katrin Scheib describes an unorthodox language class
(Warning: very strong language throughout)
We've got white wine in grandma's fancy glasses. We've got olives in tiny white bowls. We've got toothpicks to take the olives from their bowl. This is going to be a civilised, educational evening for a group of people gathered around a table in a Moscow living room. To start us off, our teacher writes down four words and holds them up: Dick. Cunt. Fuck. Slut.
What can I say: this is about linguistics and about Russian studies. It's about an everyday phenomenon of the Russian language that isn’t part of your typical class. Today, we're learning about mat, the language Russians use to swear. Oh, the jokes we've been making among us before this session: "So what shall I bring to that bloody evening at yours?” - “Hm, maybe some biscuits and shit.” Nice try. We had no idea.
“I love mat, it's incredibly versatile and variable”, says Dasha, who has kindly agreed to be our lecturer tonight. She is Russian, a journalist and a dedicated user of mat. “As a phenomenon, it's not limited to poorly educated people living in the provinces, the intelligentsia uses it as well”, she explains and mentions the name of a fellow boss of ours, from back when we were both working at the Moscow Times. “Remember, he used the polite „вы“ to address me, but at the same time, he would use mat in our conversations.” So while mat is all about swearing, it's not a good indicator of a person’s level of education or of their manners, she argues.
When we arranged to meet for tonight’s lesson, there’s one thing Dasha had made clear from the start: We're doing this right, or not at all. She has bought a small whiteboard, prepared a lecture - 30 minutes, with room for questions after. Her approach to our first round of vocabulary is just as structured, writing them down first in Russian, then transliterating into English, followed by the translation. From “хуй” to “khuy” to “dick”. Seven attentive pupils nod along and take notes.
Khuy, pizda, yebat' and blyad'. Dick, cunt, fuck and whore. For words which, in theory, no journalist in Russia should use in their writing and no musician in their songs. Which, of course, only makes them more interesting for some musical genres. “There are some big hits that have two versions, one with mat and one without”, says Dasha, and even Pushkin is said to have used mat in some of his poems. According to Russian tradition, Dasha shouldn't really know about all this, “because we women are all fragile little flowers, so it's considered inappropriate.” There have been moments when she's sitting in a café with a friend, deep in animated conversation, using lots of mat – only for a man from another table to come over and say something along the lines of “Come on, girls, the way you're talking – that's just not done.”
Dasha doesn't care, not in a café and not during our little crash course tonight. She wipes the whiteboard clean and continues, because each of the four basic parent terms has countless progeny. Take khuy, for example:
poshol na khuy: literally “go to dick”, it means something like “piss off”
mnye pokhuy: “I don't give a dick”
nakhuy: “to the dick”, meaning “to hell with it”
nakhuya: a sweary “why?”, as in “Why the dick is it raining again today?”
nikhuya: a sweary “nothing”, as in “I'm waiting for the phone call, and what happens? Not a dick.”
”And now for the best part”, says Dasha as she gives us a grin. “As well as using these four words to express something negative, they will equally work for the opposite.” Okhuyenno, for example, means “excellent”, and okhuytelno means “great”. Still, any Russian will notice the word at the core, so when she's visiting her in-laws, Dasha makes sure to use the standard Russian terms for “great” and “excellent”, rather than those where you can still hear the “dick”.
So we work our way through all of them, the four core terms and their varieties. Guided by Dasha, we learn how to avoid actual swearing – Russian has it's own versions of “darn” or “effing” - and how to replace curses with rhymes. Never mind the literal meaning, if you come up with a rhyme for it, people will still recognize the original dirty phrase. And so, yobanny v rot (fucked in the mouth) first becomes yobanny krot (fucked-up mole) and then zhovanny krot (chewed-up mole).
Time for the grand finale, for what Russians call “three-floor swearing” - as if a great curse was a house built from different mat terms. And since you can conveniently turn them from verbs into adjectives into nouns, they are also easily combined. “Piz-da-blyad-sko-ye mu-da-yo-bi-she”, Dasha dictates slowly as we all write it down. It's a bit of a diversion from the four core curses because here, the somewhat milder mat term “mudak” (asshole) also gets its chance to shine. The result, in all its four-part glory, translates as “whorecunting assholefuckery”. You'd use it, Dasha says, if you really disapprove quite strongly of something, when someone seriously gets on our nerves, or when you just banged your elbow against a piece of furniture. We nod. We have another olive. We take notes.
A German version of this text first appeared on the author's blog, kscheib.de