|Definition: Category of obscene language|
|Keywords: Russia – FSU – Russia – FSU – Language – Obscene|
|Clusters: Solidarity – Normative ambivalence – Non-conformity – Resistance|
|Author: Anastasia Shekshnya|
|Affiliation: Department Of Media, Cognition And Communication, University of Copenhagen, Denmark|
|Website: Profile page at LinkedIn|
By Anastasia Shekshnya, Department Of Media, Cognition And Communication, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
|Mat describes a type of obscene language commonly used in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Its lexicon consists of only a handful of words (though they have multiple variants), which are generally regarded as highly offensive. The act of using mat is described in Russian by the expressions rugat’sya matom (‘to swear using mat’), matom vyrazhat’sya (‘to express oneself in mat’) or simply materit’sya (to use mat).|
Materit’sya is central to day-to-day communication in several subcultures. Its social functions are associated with practices of cultural resistance (the Soviet underground, Mit’ki), self-expression (graffiti and other-forms of wall- inscription) and the general violation of social taboos, as well as with the power of expression and the effectiveness of communication, rendering mat instrumental in crisis communication. Mat is not however normally used in formal contexts. Mat is mostly an oral tradition, used at the moments of anger but also in jokes, songs, limericks (chastushka) and tales, and could be used to satirize the government. Under the Soviet regime, mat became the language of dissent associated with the Gulag penal system and with counter-culture, adopted by the intelligentsia to dissociate itself from hegemonic discourses. In 2014, a law was brought into force in Russia that forbade the use of obscene language in films, television broadcasts, books and public performances.
Recent research has disproved the popular belief that mat entered the Russian language as a result of the Mongol domination of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Mat has been found in several documents dating from much earlier than the Mongol invasion. One of the earliest is a letter dating from the early twelfth century that was found during an archaeological excavation in Russia’s Veliky Novgorod (Novgorod the Great). A woman wrote to scold a friend for not paying back a loan. Another letter found in a nearby region and dating from the same period contains brotherly business advice and makes creative use of the verb ebat’ (to fuck).
Ebat’ is to this day one of the most popular swear words in the Russian language and serves as the base for countless words and expressions. Similar verbs can be found in other Slavic languages such as Serbian (jebatj), Slovak (jebat’) and Polish (jebac) among others. Linguists point to a common proto-Slavic form of the word — jebati/jebti — meaning to hit or to lie to someone. Philologists today believe that the word probably comes from the Indo-European root jeb, originally meaning ‘to hit’ but later acquiring the meaning ‘to copulate’. Likewise, the verb ‘to fuck’ in English is believed originally to have meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to thrust’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the word’s etymology as ‘Early 16 th century: of Germanic origin (compare Swedish dialect focka and Dutch dialect fokkelen); possibly from an Indo-European root meaning “strike”, shared by Latin pugnus “fist”.’
The etymology of the word mat can be traced back to the Indo-European word mater and is related to the Russian word mat’ (mother). To use mat is thus to ‘swear by one’s mother’. Similarly, in other civilisations, invoking the name of a god or another supernatural force was intended to add weight to what the speaker was saying, and to indicate that what was being said was the truth. In Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, it was common to swear ‘by Hercules!’ or ‘by Jupiter!’ while obscene language of a sexual character was commonly used in religious rituals and festivities. In ancient Russia, or Rus’, mat was used during pagan rituals, and it may be that the Christianisation of Rus’ at the end of the tenth century contributed to rendering that type of language taboo.
Today, the commonest mat expression is yob tvoyu mat’ (‘fuck your mother’), though the form of the verb ebat’ in this instance is not an imperative, but rather the third person singular of the past tense, meaning ‘[someone] fucked your mother’. Other dictionaries suggest a range of equally taboo subjects of intercourse: ‘a dog fucked your mother’. Supporters of this theory link it to the end of matriarchy in Russia during the twelfth century, when the man who lay with the mother of the house would become the master of the home. To say yob tvoyu mat’ to someone was accordingly to assert one’s own superior power, which may be interpreted as seniority: ‘I am now your father (or father-figure) and have authority over you,’ or ‘Everything you owned is now mine’. Moreover, questioning the reputation of a mother implied that her children were bastards, perhaps leading to the expression sukin syn (‘son of a bitch’). References to the mother are taboo in many languages, notably Spanish, Italian and the Nordic languages, because of the strong bond between the mother and her child. Some writers have suggested that the ‘insult by mother’ may be rooted in the Oedipus complex, that is, a son’s desire to replace his father in his relationship with his mother.
Another interpretation of the origin of the word mat links it to ‘a loud voice’ or ‘a scream,’ and suggests that it may refer to the sounds that animals make during the mating season (ma, mia, meh). Such an animalist context would make it obscene for humans.
Because of its obscenity, the mat lexicon is rarely included in standard dictionaries. However, several dictionaries of mat have been published in Russia. Most of these include the main mat words related to genitals and their sexual use: ebat’ (‘to fuck’), blyad’ (‘whore’), pizda (‘cunt’) and khuj (‘dick’). Other dictionaries add the words suka (‘bitch’), manda (‘cunt’), mudak (‘asshole’), zhopa (‘ass’) and govno (‘shit’).
It might at first seem that the Russian swearing vocabulary is rather poor, consisting as it does of only a handful of words. However the particularity of swearing in Russian is that it is highly malleable and the words listed above can be worked into an almost infinite number of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. It is noteworthy that, of the mat words listed above, use of the first four in films, television broadcasts and public performances is banned under legislation introduced in 2014, while copies of books, DVDs or CDs that contain such words must be sealed and labelled as containing obscene language before being put on sale. The legislation was controversial, with critics seeing it as marking the return of censorship into official discourse and art forms (though parents may have welcomed the fact that their children would be sheltered from foul language). The legislation was so vaguely worded, however, that it has so far been applied only in a very inconsistent manner.
Paradoxically, while swear-words may build social barriers, they may also help to dismantle them. When not formulated as a direct insult to someone, swearing can work as an icebreaker and create a bonding experience. Since swear-words are not generally accepted in public, when an obscenity slips through in a small group it may be seen as an indication that the atmosphere is relaxed and sufficiently comfortable for the speaker to use familiar language. According to Elistratov, the use of obscene language during a conversation can create a sense of intimacy, and help set up a relationship of trust and confidence.
Mat can play an important role in politics precisely since it can act as an instrument of bonding, becoming the language of ‘insiders’ but also adding veracity and authenticity to what the speaker is saying. Erofeev has claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin engages in ‘demonstrative swearing’ with his subordinates in order to reinforce his position in the hierarchy. Putin has been known publicly to use jargon associated with criminal argot, notably in his vow of 1999 to ‘wipe the terrorists out in the outhouse’ (mochit’ ikh v sortire). It might seem hypocritical for Putin’s regime to launch a campaign against mat even as its members indulge in swearing behind closed doors. Such doublethink is not, however, uncommon in Russia.
In contemporary Russia, too, mat is consistently used as a language of crisis communication. When an individual needs to signal to others that he or she is sick or in danger and needs immediate attention, the surest way to convey the extraordinary nature of the situation is to switch to mat. The same goes the other way: a sure way of knocking someone else off balance is to switch to mat. This has led some commentators to describe mat as a management tool. Coercive leadership is quite common in Russia, and from that perspective mat might be considered a leadership tool. While mat can produce remarkable results when used in a measured way, however, if leaders use it constantly their followers are likely to become used to it and cease to take it seriously.
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