Is Football (Soccer) a Linguistic & Cultural ‘Mirror’?

Category: Culture

The following post is part of the Acclaro blog series on The 2010 FIFA World Cup taking place in South Africa from June 11 to July 11. We’re covering all sorts of linguistic and cultural phenonema that arise as 32 countries send their teams to the international tournament to compete for glory.

world cup logo - acclaro blog seriesIt may seem obvious to state that FIFA’s World Cup is a multicultural celebration, as crowds from 32 different countries flock to the fill South African stadiums, chanting in more than 10 languages.

This event, for a linguist, is a unique opportunity to see how culture and language dovetail. Football, in a way, can serve as a mirror for language and culture.

One characteristic common to all languages is arbitrariness. That is, language is arbitrary per se, as there are no links between the codes of language and the object they refer to; there is no natural relationship between a word and its meaning. We just connect certain concepts to certain words because our culture has passed down the meaning from generation to generation.

For example, because of this arbitrariness, we might each believe that dogs express themselves by saying “guau” in Spanish, “woof” in English, “Wau Wau” in German, and “ouah ouah” in French.

Getting back to football… the sport “speaks” its own language, with its own cultural variants.

For instance, why do so many football English idioms relate to food, such as “to do a banana kick”, “a banana shot”, or “to nutmeg a defender”? A literal translation of this last expression into Spanish would make no sense at all, and keep the audience on tenterhooks.

Moreover, the correct translation of “to nutmeg a defender” would be tirar un caño — which literally translates as “to throw a pipe.” Speaking of pipes, it remains a mystery why so many football Spanish idioms relate to building. Una pared (literally, “a wall”) meaning a one-two, and clavarla en el ángulo (literally “to pound a nail at the angle of the goal”), are just a few.

What is the rationale behind this? Is there any other explanation, other than arbitrariness?

For this very reason, translators need to master not only languages but also culture. Here’s another example: To correctly translate the Dutch expression Advocaatwissel, a translator needs to be familiar enough with Dutch football history to know the story of Dick Advocaat, the Dutch coach who took football star Arjen Robben out of the EC game against the Czech Republic in 2004 — even though the Netherlands was only up 2-1! Advocaat’s decision to take out his star player turned sour when the Dutch ended up losing the match; they now use the term Advocaatwissel to describe a bad subbing decision.

This is what sets professional translators apart — the ability to accurately convey a message across cultures, and the skill to adapt and shape the message so that it is understood in the target language. And there you have it! Language and culture dovetail in such a way that no machine or system can yet comprehend, despite advances in machine translation technology.


Want to know more about the convergence of languages and cultures in South Africa during this event? Read our article, Talking FIFA World Cup 2010, from the Acclaro Spring Newsletter.

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