Violates cursing freedom of expression

Profanity, purity and politics - the fight for the Russian language

In July 2014, a law came into force in Russia that forbids the use of swear words in art. Maryam Omidi discusses its implications.

Since July 1, 2014, the use of the words khuy (tail), pizda (cunt), yebat (fuck) and blyad (hooker) - the word combination called "mat" - has been banned in art in Russia. You can be fined between $ 70 and $ 1,400 for violating this law, depending on whether the word was used by an individual, public official, or organization. This is not the first time the Russian state has intervened in such a way - the Soviets tried to put an end to vulgar expressions in order to preserve the beauty of the Russian language. If you consider that the Duma was discussing a draft law last month to ban foreign and, above all, English loanwords, it quickly becomes clear that this is not an isolated case, but a vicious attempt to restrict both freedom of information and freedom of expression .

Taken together, the profanity law and the draft law banning foreign words serve as a two-pronged government strategy to rid the Russian language of harmful influences and to preserve its "purity" - a moral crusade linked to the hopes of the president Vladimir Putin stands for a new "national and spiritual identity of Russia". In his third term in office, Putin is clearly concerned about his legacy. Within Russia, this is mainly expressed in the government's culturally conservative stance and a flood of retrograde laws, such as the criminalization of "homosexual propaganda". In foreign policy, this was most evident in the annexation of Crimea, which in turn immeasurably increased Putin's popularity with the Russian people.

With the ban on swear words, which affects books, films, music, theater and popular blogs, among other things, Putin has now also taken on spiritual matters. Films containing swear words will not be released for general distribution: DVDs, books or CDs will only be sold sealed and labeled as obscene. The law is formulated so vaguely that it is not clear which swear words are allowed and which are not. What is considered obscene will in future be determined by a committee of experts: swearing is becoming a risky undertaking. The loss will be felt. In Russian, swearing is a linguistically creative activity; by adding prefixes, infixes, suffixes and the different combinations of the four words, you can express just about anything with the help of khuy, pizda, blyad and yebat in a surprisingly eloquent way.

Even the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is known for his generous use of swear words.

The declared aim of this law is not only to elevate Russian culture but at the same time to position it as an antithesis to the decadent West. In this context, a ban on foreign words can be understood as a form of linguistic protectionism, which is intended to protect Russian culture from external influences and thus serves as the second pillar of Putin's nationalism.

Russia is certainly not the first country to respond defensively to the supremacy of the English language. Just last year the French philosopher Michel Serres called on his fellow citizens to strike against the "invasion" of English words. In March of this year, the President of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, announced that he would abolish English as the official language in order to throw off the chains of the colonial past once and for all.

"Equating the Russian language with Russian identity is a mistake"

Anyone who has read George Orwell's 1984 knows the importance of the politics of language. Concrete attempts to restrict language will therefore remind many of the Newspeak language invented by Orwell, which essentially serves to control people's thoughts and restrict free thinking. The idea that language influences people's thoughts goes back to the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who claimed in the early 20th century that language precedes thought. According to this model, the grammar and vocabulary of a particular language influence the perception and behavior of the speaker. Whorf's claims - and in particular his theory of the concept of time among Native Americans - have since been largely disproved. Even so, with the exception of more radical conclusions, his ideas have been revived in recent years. In contrast to Whorf, researchers no longer assume that a person cannot understand a concept if the concept in question does not exist in their language. In contrast, it is generally accepted that language influences people's perception of the world. For example, in some languages ​​such as Guugu Yimithirr, the language of the Australian Aborigines, instead of terms such as “left” or “right”, directions (north, south, east, west) are used for directions. It follows that the human cognitive abilities for orientation in the language concerned resemble a compass.

Our use of language is a deeply political act. While both refer in principle to the same issue, there is a fundamental linguistic difference between the Obama administration's actions against "violent extremism" and the Bush war on "terror" -Government. As far as the current language debate in Russia is concerned, several points of tension can be noted. First, the critics who are quick to describe the ban on English loanwords as nationalistic or xenophobic are often the same ones who deplore the homogenization of the language resulting from globalization. In doing so, they are in fact claiming that the protection of language is acceptable in the first case and not in the second, although the urge to protect one's own culture - be it in relation to language or the local butcher - often has the same origin .

The fact is that the world's languages ​​are indeed disappearing quickly: according to a much-cited statistic, one language dies out every two weeks. With every language a culture is lost and with it its customs, its view of the world and its humor. What is particularly tragic about Russian rhetoric about the preservation of the language, however, is that it does not refer to the languages ​​on national territory that are threatened with extinction. According to UNESCO's Atlas of Endangered Languages ​​in the World, there are more than 100 languages ​​in Russia that are either vulnerable, clearly endangered, critically endangered, or critically endangered. Most of these languages ​​can be found in Siberia or the Caucasus. Many of them are on the verge of extinction, either due to government neglect or the predominance of Russian rather than English.

Despite the variety of other languages ​​in Russia, Russian is an integral part of their identity for the majority of the population. Given that 58% of the Crimean population identified as ethnically Russian, the Ukrainian government's suppression of Russian culture and language was put forward as one of the justifications for annexing the peninsula in March this year. Equating the Russian language with Russian identity is a mistake. Kazakhstan, for example, is one of the countries where Russian is the official language and widely spoken, but the majority of the population is ethnically Kazakh and also identifies as such.

“If it completely bans mat, what are we left with? Then we will have to fuck for better or worse on stage! "

Second, the attempt to preserve languages ​​and their cultural heritage is, on the one hand, a highly praiseworthy endeavor - it is only thanks to such efforts that languages ​​such as Manx, Cornish or Livonian have been saved from extinction. On the other hand, we should also recognize the beauty in the development of languages. This turns Whorf's philosophy on its head and shows that, conversely, thoughts can also shape language. When we lack a word for a new concept, we can just create a new one. It is precisely this malleable nature of language that makes it so poetic, regardless of whether these influences take the form of word creations, artificial words or other changes or even loan words that drive purists to white heat. The English language has undoubtedly been enriched by words from other cultures, including Russian - just think of Apparachik, Tsar, Bolshy, Pogrom, Gulag and Pavlova. For its part, Russian has incorporated thousands of Turkish, French, and German words. Each new word has a very precise cultural meaning, adding a more varied range of nuances to the language in which it fits. To quote Mark Twain, this is important because "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the same as the difference between a lamp and a firefly."

In addition, each iteration of a language and each new hybrid creates a new culture and reflects a new era, which in turn creates new kinds of knowledge as well as new literature, music and art. This is due to the adaptability of language and, consequently, human nature. In 2009, the Chinese censorship of vulgar content on the Internet led to the creation of a meme of a "grass-mud horse", a term that sounds almost exactly like "fuck your mother" in Chinese. Shortly thereafter, a lexicon with euphemisms and homonyms followed to circumvent censorship. While this kind of resistance is admirable, it doesn't change the fundamental fact that it shouldn't get that far in the first place. The effects of today's ban on swear words will only become apparent in the future. If you believe the Russian musicians, they will not watch the whole thing in silence. “If they completely ban mat, what else do we have left?” Says Sergei Schnurov, lead singer of the rock band Leningrad, famous for their swear words. "Then we will have to fuck for better or worse on stage!"

Maryam Omidi (@maryam_omidi) is features editor at The Calvert Journal. The original article was published here.