01 April 2009

Guest Post: How language explains football

Happy cruellest month! We have a special guest post for you today from a good friend, Jerome Sapir-Whorf. Jerome is Professor of Patalinguistics at Trinity College, Dublin, and here gives a fascinating insight into his research of a rarely-studied part of football history.

Much exciting literature has been produced in recent years on the relationship between a nation's culture and its style of football. Writers such as Simon Kuper, David Winner and David Goldblatt have tried to determine whether factors such as art, politics and sociology can explain the differences in how soccer is played from country to country. While these works have enhanced the popular understanding of soccer, this is a sadly neglected field in academia. Furthermore, the impact of language on the game has hitherto been completely overlooked. Such a gap in knowledge has prompted Prof. Avril Fish-Wink-Wink of the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, Paris and myself to examine the issue.

It is a fact that language shapes thought. Readers of George Orwell's fictional Nineteen Eighty-Four, for instance, will be familiar with Newspeak, by which the Party aimed to systematically reduce the vocabulary of English, eliminating words which corresponded with concepts deemed by them to be undesirable, thus making the imagining of those concepts impossible. Extending this, it seems logical that the language of a group of people could determine how they conceived of a game, such as soccer.

One obvious example is in the area of vocabulary. We are all familiar with the idea of the Eskimos having fifty different words for "snow". This preponderance of words for something for which English, say, has but a handful is a reflection of the importance of snow in Eskimo culture. Similarly, if you examine other languages, you see the effect this idea has on football. Italian has 33 words pertaining to cynicism, expressing such nuanced connotations as "the cynicism with which one regards the mandated speed limit" and "the cynicism which leads one to take a piece of fruit from a shopfront display without paying". German has 28 words for different types of efficiency. Most Romance languages have a higher than average number of terms for various kinds of simulation. Dutch has a truly incredible 84 words to do with selfishness. Whereas European Portuguese has a standard number of ways to describe beauty, Brazilian Portuguese has twelve times the average. It is clear, I trust, how this has influenced the style of play in these countries.

One of the most significant linguistic factors in determining style is in the matter of morphology. There is a clear causality between the German case system and the success of the West German national team and Bayern Munich in the 1970s. German is a heavily inflected language, with nouns, pronouns and adjectives inflecting for case. Whereas English has lost most of its inflection, meaning that word order bears much meaning in a sentence, German word order is freer as a result of each word's function being made clear by how it is declined. This mindset paved the way for the development of Germany's form of "Total Football", in which Franz Beckenbauer's role as an attacking sweeper - subverting the normal order of things - played an essential role. It is inconceivable that a Franz Beckenbauer could have emerged from a culture which was not supported by a heavily inflected language.

The prime exemplars of "Total Football" were, of course, the Dutch. While much of the inflection in Dutch has been lost over the centuries, some is retained in a range of idiomatic expressions. Thus a sort of folk memory has been retained of the old case system, much as a homeopathic medicine will retain a "memory" of the substance which has been diluted many times over in order to create it. The freedom offered by an extensive case system had an obvious relation to the fluid position-switching of Ajax and Holland in the 1970s.

Latin's case system also devolved into a reliance on word order in the Romance languages. While the consequent rigidity of word order in the Romance languages may seem incompatible with the beautiful flowing football of the Latin countries, this is not so. This rigidity is offset by the mellifluous sonics of the languages, with their monophthong-centricism and heavy use of elision to aid the smoothness of speech. In Brazilian Portuguese, the nasalisation of vowels and the softening of word-final /d/ and /t/ indicate a playful, even daring character, with obvious consequences on their football.

English is full of telltale signs as to what effected the peculiarly English approach to football. Old English morphology was highly inflectional. This system gradually broke down into the word order dependent system we know today. This was uncannily mirrored in the development of soccer. The chaotic, free-for-all mob football games (flexible word order) became more organised, with positions becoming important, but still relatively loose (case system breaking down, word order beginning to set) until the 2-3-5 system became the all-conquering default, with players' roles strictly determined by their position (position of a word in a sentence denotes its function in the sentence). Small wonder that England were baffled by Hungary's withdrawn centre-forward in 1953; Hungarian's more creative sentence structure allowed the Magyars to view the game more laterally than the English could, with the latter's more constrained linguistic approach leaving them woefully unprepared.

The issue of rhoticity has gone criminally under-acknowledged in the history of football. The accent of most English people is non-rhotic; that is, word-final /r/ disappears, "colouring" the preceding vowel. Scottish accents, however, are rhotic, giving full value to /r/. The English propensity for short-cuts unsurprisingly led to the dominant "kick-and-rush", long-ball style of football. The Scots, however, were naturally given to exploring possibilities to their fullest extent, which led to their invention of the passing game. It's obvious why the latter style took hold in Latin countries and Eastern Europe -- places with rhotic langauges.

Rhoticity also plays a part in explaining the radical developments which occurred in football in rural Somerset, a part of England where a rhotic accent dominates. Here, simultaneously with and independently from Scotland, a passing game developed, only to be swamped by the long-ball game of surrounding areas. That so little is known of this today is due to the scandalous refusal of the metropolitan elites to acknowledge it. (That's an issue for another day!)

One of the most fascinating developments in footballolinguistics is happening right now. It doesn't take a linguist to notice that the English language has been in decline for quite some time. Corrupt governments, inadequate educational systems, stupid young people and illiterate greengrocer's have turned English into gibberish. The misuse of apostrophes, the neglect of whom and the cherished subjunctive mood and the degenerate barbarisms of text messaging, chatroom conversations and Americanisms have dealt an almost fatal blow to this most noble of tongues. Such was the depth of the outrage generated by this horrific spectacle that the long overdue backlash eventually began. Lynne Truss heroically stepped into the breach with her marvellous 2003 book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, which alerted the world to the butchery of English and fuelled people with the righteous anger of the personally scorned. Finally, the grave, grave problem was recognised, and the brave warriors self-appointed to protect our very decency gained their due legitimacy.

Similarly, English football has fallen sharply in the years since she ruled the world in 1966. Just like it took a Truss to stem the decline of the language, now England have Fabio Capello to rescue the national team and banish the memories of past failure and the general degradation of the English game. It is clear that Truss' work has had a ripple effect throughout English society, including in football. Will Capello rescue English football? Well, we don't yet know whether Truss has saved the English language, so it remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: in football, as in everything, you are what you speak.


Anonymous,  6/4/09 2:51 AM  

I am sorry, but to assume causality based solely on linguistic differences is laughable.

"It is inconceivable that a Franz Beckenbauer could have emerged from a culture which was not supported by a heavily inflected language." - It's not like the "emergence" of Beckenbauer could have had anything to do with his athletic ability, his manager's tactical choices, his given set of skills...No, it all came down to the subtleties of his German pronunciation! If only I had been born German in the mid-1940s - I could have been one of the greatest footballers of all time!

JD,  7/4/09 12:39 AM  

"There is a clear causality between the German case system and the success of the West German national team and Bayern Munich in the 1970s."

I'm no scientist. But don't the scientists say that you don't have causality simply because A happens and then B happens? You have co-occurrence, sure. But clear causality?

And why the Germans? Russian nouns, pronouns, and adjectives all have to be adjusted for case, too. And word order is equally free and dependent on where the speaker is placing emphasis.

Fredorrarci 7/4/09 12:57 AM  

I respectfully refer the commenters to the date atop this post, and to the fact that things can get very silly round these parts sometimes.

Wishydig 30/4/09 2:12 AM  

this is a gorgeous post. i thank you.

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