Is there a branch of language that doesn’t deserve being studied? Impressions in the light of VivA’s Vloek met flair (en voorbehoud)-symposium on swearing in Afrikaans

Is there a branch of language that doesn’t deserve being studied? Impressions in the light of VivA’s Vloek met flair (en voorbehoud)-symposium on swearing in Afrikaans
Author – Benito Trollip (SADiLaR Afrikaans Researcher)

The Virtual Institute for Afrikaans (VivA) held a public symposium titled “Vloek met flair (en voorbehoud)”1 in Pretoria on Friday, 15 November 2019. The symposium aimed to stimulate a conversation about the use and academic study of swear words and their use in Afrikaans. The symposium was also part of the launch of a research project about cursing in Afrikaans of which more information is available on the project website.

It is possible to give a summary of the opinions given at the symposium, but that is not the aim of this blog. A previous blog by Sophia Kapp contains more detail about the actual course the discussion took with panellist’s individual contributions and the nature of the questions afterwards. Some of the topics that were touched on include the way swearing is dealt with in commentary strings online, swear words in Afrikaans plays, television shows, and novels, as well as swear words, taboo subjects and possible censorship thereof on radio. In the end all that was said on the day was food for thought concerning language taboos in general. One interesting aspect that was briefly highlighted, is the personal swear word scale of Johan Jack Smith, editor of Taalgenoot and also one of the editors at Wenkbrou. A list like this will definitely give some insight into what each individual sees as swearing as well as which swear words an individual ultimately sees as more sweary than others.

My questions and comments in the light of the panel discussion are numerous and the best way to summarise them is to appeal to all to consider some related concepts together and separate from each other. My impressions of the day can be sorted under the phrase “the value of swear words”. Most of the panellists referred to swear words having value. What is meant with swear words having value? Does value mean only one swear word per five hundred other words, boiling down to value meaning low frequency? Or does a swear word only have value if the person or character using it “fits”? Should swear words only have shock value and no creative or socially motivated value? Is the value of swear words, as some prejudices dictate, that it indicates a lack of good education? There most probably isn’t a single answer to any of these questions that will be equally acceptable to everyone. My feeling is that these questions about the value of swear words are dependent on the way related concepts like content, meaning, and function are understood. Even though the integration of concepts like value, content, meaning, and function cannot be dealt with in a blog, I would like to give a simplified look at them.

Meaning and content are two abstract concepts that are influenced by circumstances surrounding directly inside any language usage event. The subject of a conversation, the speakers and the medium use are all some of the factors playing a role in the determination of meaning and content. Even the emotional content of any type of language usage is determined by the surrounding context. There is a difference in asking for a glass of water once and asking for it for the fifth time. The emotional impact of swear words change as the context changes. For example, when you whisper the p-word (a ‘strong’ Afrikaans swear word) to a classmate who yet again gets a higher mark for the chemistry paper than you, it differs from shouting the p-word to the arsonist who destroyed your Chinese dragon broach in a court full of people. The first example will typically not qualify as defamation, while the second probably will. In contrast to meaning and content, functions are more or less set in as far as verbs denote actions and nouns denote things. A curse word’s function is difficult to determine, according to me the reason is because the context determines which function the speaker and hearer deem relevant for the situation. The way in which meaning, content, function and value influences one another is complex and there is no straightforward answer. To study the interaction between these concepts in the use of swear words in Afrikaans, is a considerable research project which I will happily want to be part of.

I believe it is very important not to forget about the versatile nature of swear words. Intensity, positive or negative sentiment, humour and social cohesion can all be communicated using a single curse word. Swear word use reminds me of the statement by Napoli and Hoeksema2 about taboo words in general, that they function as “syntactic silly putty”. Swear words are in a way the dux student of any language and their spot in the research son is not totally unmotivated. Research about swear word use in all its forms, to understand the phenomenon better, results in the expansion of the general scientific body of knowledge. An inventory, categorisation, and intensity scale (similar to Johan Jack Smith’s scale) of Afrikaans curse words will be a worthwhile endeavour for anyone. Misconceptions that research about swear words will undermine the speakers of a language, are in my opinion invalid.

My lasting impression of the symposium is mostly positive from a flair and reservation perspective. As a speaker and researcher that is a massive fan of his language, I am extremely excited about the enthusiastic, prudent and prejudice free study of this versatile linguistic phenomenon

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog is that of the author, any insights or misconceptions therein, is his own.


  • A possible English title would be “Swear with flair (and reservation).
  • The publication referred to is Napoli en Hoeksema (2008).


Napoli, D.J. & Hoeksema, J. 2008. Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions. Journal of Linguistics, 44(2):347-378.


An Afrikaans version of this blog appears on VivA’s website