Are Australians all a bunch of uncouth bastards, shooting their bloody mouths off at every opportunity? Or are those academic dickheads just spouting more shit?
It’s shocking to read. You just don’t expect it. But it certainly gets attention. And it broadcasts exactly how emotive the subject can be.
That, says linguistics research student Carolin Krafzik, may be why we Aussie bastards love it so much…
“I was surprised by this claim that swearing is so common among Aussies in general considering how many different cultural influences and languages Australia has,” says Krafzik, a German national who moved here to attend La Trobe University, in Melbourne, for her studies.
The answer, she believes, lies in who swears, why they swear, and what they think swearing is.
Swearing is a matter of language, culture and social mores. And the nuances of swearing are heavily defined by social context and taboos.
“My main goal is to look at Australia’s cultural diversity in swearing,” she says. “It’s about whether people who come here as well as whose families have been here for generations, see it as part of their Australianness … do they adopt it to become more Australian?”
Krafzik says her study still has a long way to go before making firm observations. But her mix of survey, interview and observational data is producing some trends. Also increasingly evident is the unique nature of Australia’s potty mouths.
Swearing is rarely what we think it is.
Sign of the times
The first thing that comes to mind is abusive confrontation, or an angry expletive. But it seems to be a small part of the story, Krafzik explains.
It’s just the dramatic end of a finely crafted linguistic scale of emotional expressions. Apparently, we’ve had plenty of time to add immense nuance to our inherited tendency.
“My research shows the British and Irish working-class introduced most of the swearing we have in Australia,” Krafzik says. “It was cemented in those early colonial days.”
The British officer class tended to rotate in and out of the colonies. The working-class settlers – and convicts – stayed.
“It was also a very male-dominated language in the early days,” Krafzik says. “And they laid the foundation stones that everyone who came later had to adapt to.”
It turns out that strong language is, well, very strong. Many of the words are still the same – although that doesn’t mean Australia’s repertoire is stuck in the 18th century.
“For instance, you might think that your parents’ generation might have sworn less than kids do nowadays,” Krafzik says. “But it seems they just swore differently.”
Swearing’s strength comes from the cultural taboo that it breaks, and that changes with time.
Krafzik says that expressions such as ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ might not be considered as strong as they used to be – “but it also depends on whether you’re a religious person or not”.
Other words and expressions have become stronger.
“My surveys suggest the strongest swearing now tends to be homophobic, racist and sexist – things that touch on aspects of a person that they cannot change. It’s about who they are.
“These are considered among the strongest nowadays, and they haven’t always been like that in the past”.
All of which explains why context is central to Australia’s swearing culture.
Swearing the world over tends to be very similar in form and nature. Being a short, sharp, and offensive word is a prerequisite.
“Swearing is something that needs to happen quickly,” says Krafzik. “It is something that expresses emotion, releases stress and, often, delivers a joke.”
But swearing itself is used in such a variety of situations that it’s hard to pin down a complete and universal definition.
“I have come up with the definition that for something to be considered swearing, it needs to touch on some kind of cultural taboo,” Krafzik says. “That can be many things, and it’s usually very different between cultures”.
It’s often emotional. But not always. “There’s something I consider casual swearing, where someone swears so frequently that the words are bleached of their intensity. To fill a pause or simply use it so often it barely has any strength”.
To make sense of it, Krafzik has several categories and subcategories to bundle swearing under. These include:
- Abusive swearing: this can be direct to a subject’s face or behind their back.
- Stylistic swearing: a means of emphasising emotions and attitudes.
- Humorous swearing: used in social bonding situations to express confidence and relaxation.
- Cathartic swearing: releasing stress, either as private muttering under your breath or a loud, deliberately broadcast exclamation.
Whatever the use, the words tend to remain the same, says Krafzik. And what constitutes a swear word stays relatively stable over time. “Words like ‘bloody’, ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ have been around quite a long time. They fluctuate in perceived intensity, and maybe the combinations or contexts in which people use them.”
That’s because taboos are deeply entrenched. Slang, however, changes much faster as it reflects fleeting cultural references.
Bloody okker, mate
Krafzik says the practice of swearing may be so socially powerful that it overwhelms migrant influence – especially because many Australians regard it as central to their culture.
“Most people who come here after time – like me – come to terms with the fact that people swear in Australia; they just accept it,” she says.
So what does this mean for migrants who come to Australia from the many and diverse parts of the globe? Do they end up swearing more vehemently, more often, in more situations?
“I haven’t fully answered that question yet,” Krafzik says. “There is some evidence that people get more similar the longer the families have been in the country, the more generations have lived in Australia.”
Swearing is a part of every culture. Differences are mostly a matter of degree – and content.
“Some still swear in their original languages,” says Krafzik. “But they tend to mix and match, choosing which suits the moment best, which is stronger, which is most expressive.”
Her research examines people of Chinese, Italian and Anglo-Celtic backgrounds or heritage. Early results indicate that the Anglo-Celtic immigrants most broadly accept Australian swearing. Italians aren’t all that far behind. But the most reserved appear to be Chinese speakers.
“You need to understand the culture in order to understand a swear word,” Krafzik says, “and they might have different cultural values. The taboo might be stronger or weaker in one culture than the other even though the word meaning is similar.”
This, she says, may be why Australia’s swearing is so diverse and extensive. “They bring how common swearing is in their different contexts, which type of words are used … they influence how it is applied and what form it takes.”
And that seems to be behind Australia’s broad application of foul-mouthery: we’ve adopted it all.
“Swearing is not just frequent in Australia,” says Krafzik. “It’s also frequent in other countries. It’s that swearing seems to be found in more contexts and more situations across more social classes downunder.”
Which resonates, when you stop to think about it. In Australia, swearing’s in literature. It’s in advertising. It’s in politics. It’s in daily public discourse.
“That is something that is typically Australian that you wouldn’t find in other English-speaking countries. So it’s just more the attitude towards public swearing is more relaxed and more accepted. In the US or UK, it will mainly be found in more private contexts or pop culture.”
Bloody interesting stuff, eh?
Perhaps you’d like to get involved. Krafzik is asking for as many respondents as possible for her swearing survey, especially people of Italian or Chinese heritage. She’s also seeking more working-class and regional input for her interviews and observations. You can choose to participate in one, two or all three parts of the study. Click here if you’d like more information or are interested in being part of the study.
This research has been reviewed and approved by The La Trobe University Human Research Ethics Committee (Ethics reference number: HEC21014).
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.