Project: What the Swearword?! Multidisciplinary research and scientific
communication on cursing


Swearing is a fascinating phenomenon that not only gives us deep insights in human cognition and neurophysiology, but also in social interactions and power dynamics. However, very little multidisciplinary research has been done on swearing in the South African context – a lacuna that this project aims to fill with insights from the Digital Humanities, and with inputs from and implications to linguistics, literary studies, journalism and communication studies, psychology, sociology, law, philosophy and ethics, cultural anthropology and history, pediatrics, neurology and other neurosciences.

In several sub-projects, we will answer questions like the following:

  • If a website contains swearing, what legal obligations does the owner/developer have?
  • Should parents protect their children from hearing swear words?
  • What is the best way to determine objective offensiveness ratings for swearwords, e.g., to determine advisories for films and/or books?
  • How does it happen that an Afrikaans word like be·fok (a verbalized form of fuck) can mean, among others, both ‘good’ (as in Dit was nou befok gewees! ‘That was really fucking A’), and ‘angry’ (as in Hy is al weer befok! ‘He is once again fucked off!’)?
  • How is swearing used as a linguistic innovation that causes short-term and/or rapid language change?
  • What are the views on swearing of writers, dramatists, poets, TV and film makers, producers, directors, actors, musicians, editors, journalists, podcasters, bloggers?
  • How and why do these content creators apply self-censorship with regards to swearing? What is the impact of cancel culture on their language usage in the content they create?
  • What is the interaction between swearing and societal change?
  • What is the neurological impact when someone hears a racial, homophobic, or sexist slur?

A secure, technology-rich, end-user facing project website will be set up to create awareness of and cultivate new collaborations on the project, collect usage-based data (both corpus data, and questionnaire/poll data), and to experiment with engaging and contemporary ways (like blogs, podcasts, and webinars) to communicate with the public and the scientific community alike.


The primary aim of this proposed research project is to address the lacuna in knowledge on and understanding of swearing in the South African context through:

  • linguistic research (focusing foremostly on Afrikaans and languages in its ecosystem); and
  • multidisciplinary research.

The secondary aim of this proposed project is to investigate alternative, contemporary opportunities of scholarly communication, specifically focussing on podcasts, blogs, videos, and webinars. Specifically, the research focus will be on how to:

  • incorporate and integrate peer-reviewing in such communication channels;
  • utilise such means to stimulate multidisciplinary interest and foster new collaborations;
  • use these channels to enable and fast-track research (e.g. increasing respondent participation); and
  • employ these channels to develop new sources of funding.

The topic of swearing has been chosen carefully to either support or otherwise hinder some of these secondary goals: It should, on the one hand, be a popular and accessible topic in both expert and non-expert communities (supporting secondary foci (a) to (c)), while on the other hand being potentially contentious to obtain funding (hindering secondary focus (d)).

Other aims include:

  • to report on the research and development process in the form of:
    • 70 blogs (at least);
    • 50 podcasts (at least, of which 30 will be interviews with content creators);
    • 3 webinars (at least);
    • 1 database: Afrikaans Vloekepedia;
    • 1 corpus: Afrikaans Twitter corpus (but also other corpora that might be developed; made available under an appropriate licence, and to be distributed by the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources);
    • 1 project website;
    • 4 scholarly articles or chapters in books, to be published in relevant South African or international journals and peer-reviewed conference proceedings;
    • 4 conference presentations; and
    • 2 Master’s dissertations;
  • to contribute towards human capital development and growth of the pool of experts in descriptive linguistics and computational linguistics in South Africa by offering bursaries, grants or contract work to:
    • one post-doctoral fellow;
    • two Master’s students;
    • twelve assistants (undergraduate students; four per year) for data collection and annotation;
  • to identify new research issues and problems as they unfold in the research and development process; and
  • to foster new collaborative networks for future multidisciplinary research.




  • Suid-Afrikaans Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South Africa)
  • North-West University (Potchefstroom, South Africa)

Barter agreements with the following institutions also support the research:

  • BlueTek Computers, Potchefstroom (South Africa)
  • (South Africa)
  • (South Africa)

The following institution contributed data to the project:

  • Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal (WAT) (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
  • Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal (HAT) (Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Centre for Text Technology (CTexT), North-West University (Potchefstroom, South Africa)



  • Project leader
    • Gerhard B van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • Researchers
    • Liesbeth Augustinus (KU Leuven)
    • Lande Botha (NWU)
    • Adri Breed (NWU)
    • Anneke Butler (NWU)
    • Peter Dirix (KU Leuven)
    • Roald Eiselen (NWU)
    • Maristi Partridge (NWU)
    • Suléne Pilon (UP)
    • Martin Puttkammer (NWU)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • (Guest) lecturers
    • Elmarie Claassens (private)
    • Hanlie Degenaar (NWU)
    • Roald Eiselen (NWU)
    • Tanja Gaustad (NWU)
    • Ankebe Kruger (NWU)
    • Greg Lamb (NWU/private)
    • Suléne Pilon (UP)
    • Martin Puttkammer (NWU)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • PhD/MA students
    • Colette Combrink (NWU)
    • Benito Trollip (NWU)
    • Mart-Mari van der Merwe (UP)
  • Honours students
    • Bianca Gouws (NWU)
    • Carla Kershoff (NWU)
    • Corine Raath (NWU)
    • Maroné van Veijeren (UP)
    • Heidi Venter (NWU)
  • Undergraduate students
    • Simoné Koekemoer (NWU)
  • Web and social media editors
    • Colette Combrink (NWU; 2019/2020)
    • Monique Rabie (NWU)
  • Data collection, data analysis, and data processing
    • Willem Botha (WAT)
    • Colette Combrink (NWU)
    • André du Plessis (WAT)
    • Jaco du Toit (NWU)
    • Roald Eiselen (NWU)
    • Griffin (WatKykJy)
    • Jana Luther (NWU)
    • Corine Raath (NWU)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • Website development
    • Eddie Dednam (BlueTek Computers)
    • Cornelius van der Walt (BlueTek Computers)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • Graphic design
    • Sue de Kock (private)
  • Bloggers:
    • Elsabé Brits (private)
    • Griffin (private)
    • Riaan Grobler (private)
    • Mart-Mari van der Merwe (UP)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)
  • Podcasters:
    • Elmarie Claassens (private)
    • Gifford Peché (Decibel Studios)
    • Gerhard van Huyssteen (NWU)

We would like to acknowledge the inputs of Liesbeth Augustinus and Peter Dirix (Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium) in the initial conceptualization of this project, as well as Suléne Pilon (UP) in the ongoing re-conceptualization of the project.


Ethical clearance for the research project was obtained through the Language Matters Ethics Committee of the NWU (ethics number: NWU-00632-19-A7). Additional ethics clearance for one of the master’s students was obtained from the Faculty of Humanities (UP), with reference number 16002360 (HUM017/0920).





  1. Van Huyssteen, Gerhard B. 2019. “Vloek Afrikaanssprekendes regtig? Betroubaarheid van ’n eerste grootskaalse meningspeiling se resultate.”


  1. Van Huyssteen, Gerhard B. 2019. “Waar kom die woord “testikel” vandaan?” Vloekcoza-blog.