We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Peter Alegi grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.
You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?
Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.
Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.
I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.
Peter Alegi: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”
This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.
What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!
In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).
Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.
Pablo Alabarces: I feel something similar to Peter’s experience. I think that the Argentine’s relationship with the language of sports is extremely close and personal. So when I went to football stadiums for the first time, I didn’t understand anything. I couldn’t understand the chants (I had to read them) or even the body language. When celebrating an Arsenal goal, I gave a hug to an unknown fan next to me, which is absolutely normal in Argentine grounds – but not in English ones.
There are two specific traces in language where I find huge differences. The first is in how we celebrate the goal. In Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, all of us shout “gooooooolllllllll,” over-marking the “o” and the “l.” British people shout “Yes!” – which sounds closer to an orgasm than a goal.
And the second one is how we say the score. One to nil. Two-nil. Nil? Why “nil”? Is this a cultist mark of the Latin “nihil”? Nobody in Britain could explain this to me, and I asked almost all of my colleagues and friends. For them, it was as usual and common as our “cero” (zero).
Markus Stauff: For me, English as a language of sports was first connected to specific games that originated in the U.S.: American football, basketball, and baseball. Because of that, I can’t easily tell to what extent English speakers have a specific way of talking about sports in general and to what extent the different sports afford particular uses of language.
This is an interesting point, though: Each sport comes with its own specific vocabulary. Sometimes, this is highly technical vocabulary (e.g., the classification of player’s roles and positions), which travels across languages. Sometimes, it’s a metaphorical appropriation of everyday language or even military terminology. Listening to live commentary in English while not being a native speaker – at least when you first discover a sport – leaves you guessing if, say, a “fumble,” an “interception,” or a “fullback” are regularly used technical terms or descriptions that a commentator came up with in a specific situation. Watching more regularly thus means learning a language that is partly English and partly the language of the specific sport.
A second aspect of watching English-language broadcasts are the different traditions and conventions in media’s representation of sports. For instance, the division of labor between the play-by-play announcer and color commentator, which is not common in German or Dutch soccer broadcasts, shapes the use of language. When I started to watch English-language coverage, the conversational style sounded much more knowledgeable and profound than the voice-of-God narration of an individual commentator. The back-and-forth commentary between two voices gave me the impression that there was actually something at stake.
Have you recognized changes in the ways that games are announced in your home countries – or even discussed by fans – that reflect the influence of English-language sports media?
Pablo: Hat-trick. What is a hat-trick? Or a better question, because we know what a hat-trick is: Why “hat-trick”? With the Premier League broadcasting each Saturday in Argentina on cable TV, journalists have begun to use the term to refer to three goals in a match for a single player, but nobody has explained where the term comes from.
Similar things happened in basketball. In the 1990s, a show called “The Best of NBA” was broadcast every Sunday night, and that began an important presence of NBA terms in Argentine basketball culture (in spite of the fact that we actually had an important and autonomous basketball culture). Obviously, the arrival of Argentine players to the NBA in the next decade made this tendency even stronger. Now all of us talk about the “pick and roll” – in English.
Kay: It is well known that the adoption of English-language terms in talking and writing about football goes back to the 19th century, due to English/British role of inventing and spreading the game. In Imperial Germany, many English football terms were quickly Germanized, with the corner becoming “ein Eckball” and the penalty, “ein Elfmeter.” But the foul stayed “ein Foul” and the hat-trick “ein Hattrick” (which was also the name of a German aftershave in the 1970s, endorsed by striker Uwe Seeler). Meanwhile, the Austrians have kept the English-language terminology more consistently to today, thereby indicating their emphasis on football as an international game. The current adoption of English-language terms in German football reporting often relates to technological innovations, such as “die Heatmap.”
Peter: These days Italian broadcast, print, and online media are awash in often silly English language terms. Two expressions make my blood boil. TV presenters now use the term “highlights” instead of the previous and perfectly functional “immagini,” “sintesi,” and the like. Making matters worse, of course, is awful pronunciation – as the contorted expressions on the faces of my U.S.-born kids will testify. But the worst of the lot is, without question, “Top Player” (as in “Totti è un Top Player“). A useless expression that seemed to appear out of nowhere and very quickly spread like a terrible virus. It screams: “See, I know English!”
Back in the day, the absence of all but the most useful and necessary English expressions from the language of calcio was nice. I enjoyed reading and listening to literate fútbologists in mainstream media, such as Gianni Brera and Beppe Viola. They coined neologisms and weaved ironic narratives into the game without flowery English interjections. This was also true of our play-by-play announcers, such as Sandro Ciotti, Enrico Ameri. Bruno Pizzul, Nando Martellini. Watching the 2014 World Cup in Italy, I was appalled at how contemporary Italian commentators, across all media platforms, relish saying “cooling breaks” and similar things when they could just use Italian instead. Less is more!
Markus: Indeed there are ridiculous appropriations of English terms. Overall, however, I see it as a more heterogenous process than Peter does. The interesting thing about sports – language-wise – seems to be the existence of national leagues, national teams, and national histories and terminologies parallel with globally standardized rules, international competitions, and transnational governing bodies. English has a certain dominance here, but other languages have an interesting persistence as well. In road cycling, for instance, the vocabulary one learns (even on American TV) still includes French terms: flamme rouge, chapeau, peloton, etc.
Thus I would again argue that the use of a particular language is dependent on the kind of sport. During transmissions of NBA or NFL matches, German and Dutch commentators constantly use English terminology. At the same time, though, they also explain that vocabulary for members of the audience who are not already familiar with the sports, especially during the Super Bowl.
This brings me back to the interest in “technical” terminology. The rules of sports, as well as the innovation of tactics and strategies, require a constant update of terminology. Depending on where the innovation took place, it gets a name in that nation’s language – a famous example being the Italian tactic of preventing goals, the catenaccio.
To come back to the question: The influence of English language on sports, to me, seems most conspicuous in the growing presence of U.S. sports in European media (yet the Dutch still use their own name – honkbal – for baseball!). In non-U.S. sports, I don’t see any definite changes triggered by English language, at least not more than in any other area of culture.
In the U.S., you’ll hear fans talk about their teams as “we” and “us,” and some will even refer to players on those teams by their first names, as if they’re on friendly terms. But there are other fans who talk about their teams only as “they” and refer to specific players only by their family names. What do you find among fans back home – do they tend more to use this familiar way of speaking, or did they keep a distance between themselves and their teams by using the third-person?
Peter: Italian fans definitely use the language of “us” versus “them. This practice is probably connected to the great paradox of team sports: they unite, and at the same time they divide.
We often use nicknames to show our love for favorite clubs and players. In contrast, keeping a distance from the opposition is often accomplished by using third-person references and surnames as well as through jokes, insults, and songs.
Pedro: Not only for club teams, but also for national teams. Look at the World Cup: “We,” the Argentines, defeated almost everybody, but then “we” were defeated by “them,” the Germans.
But in the case of local teams, you name the players as friends only between friends. That way, the other – the fan of another team – cannot understand who you are talking about. Among partial fans, the use of the first names and nicknames of players is a key to becoming known as a connaisseur.
Kay: My instinct would be to say that it is less common in Germany than in England. But that may just be because I’m too far removed from the type of fan who would refer to Rio or Giggsy or Becks as if they were close friends. That said, I was personally congratulated by my English friends on Germany winning the World Cup and Bayern the Champions League in 2013, although that may have much to do with my status as an outsider in the UK.
I wonder whether the use of a language that indicates a great degree of closeness has to do with football’s working class roots. Where more of this is left, there may be a stronger inclination to identify very closely with a player (though the Beckham example militates against this idea). The historical example of uns (our) Uwe Seeler springs to mind. Seeler was a working-class hero of the 1960s, firmly rooted in the working-class footballing traditions of Hamburg, which were then transposed to the nation as a whole. I cannot imagine Mario Götze or Thomas Müller being referred to in Germany in similar ways.
Is it still the case in your home countries that boys playing a sport — or even a boy alone practicing his skills — will narrate their play with the call of an announcer?
Kay: Yes of course, either by commenting upon their own sporting prowess using an authoritative commentator’s voice or by impersonating famous athletes while accompanied by an authoritative commentator’s voice. In their fantasies, they then become this famous athlete. This seems to occur because so much emphasis is laid upon athletic prowess as a male value in Western society (which strikes me as a rather pre-modern idea). And there seem to be few alternatives, especially for prepubescent boys.
Pablo: I heard a man, in his late twenties, narrating his performance during an informal game in a park. I was playing also, and I couldn’t understand what I was hearing.
When I played soccer (up to five years ago), sometimes goals were underlined with a commentary or an expression taken from the sports broadcasting. Just a phrase, not a full commentary. Why? Because we – and the boys – were organized more by media than by personal experience. Personal experience of sports is always mediated by media.
Markus: I remember vividly that one boy at my school (at the age of 14 or 15), who was not the most talented player, impressed everybody by his “live commentary” on his own moves, with a flow of words quite similar to a professional sportscaster. Other than that, the more common practice to me seems to be the partly ironic repetition of the most stereotypical phrases of commentators.
Somewhat different from Kay, I see this as a symptom of the pretty ambivalent status of football (or, more generally, sports) commentary: On the one hand, the voice and the phrases of radio or TV commentary have long been an intrinsic aspect of the experience of sports and can even stand for the most spectacular events by themselves. In the Netherlands, the radio commentary for Dennis Bergkamp’s winning goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup is nearly as famous as the goal itself.
On the other hand, the commentary is much ridiculed for its repetitiveness, its oversized emotions and its clichés. I would like to think that the boyish appropriation of the commentary, in the best instances, manages to do both – exposing its flaws and developing its poetic potential. This would also corroborate Peter’s argument concerning the names of teams and places: The strange and repetitive character of the commentary triggers the imagination.
All the Lego brick imitations of famous football scenes wouldn’t work without the commentary.
Pablo Alabarces is professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. He is author of several books, including Fútbol y Patria: El fútbol y las narrativas de la nación en la Argentina and Héroes, machos y patriots: El fútbol entre la violencia y los medios
Peter Alegi teaches history at Michigan State University. He is author of African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game and co-editor of Africa’s World Cup. Peter tweets at @.
Kay Schiller teaches history at Durham University. He is author of WM 1974: Als der Fußball modern wurde and co-editor of The FIFA World Cup 1930 – 2010: Politics, Commerce, Spectacle and Identities. You can follow Kay at @.
Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. He has published many articles and essays on sport and media, and he is co-editor of the book Filmgenres: Sportfilm. Markus is on Twitter at @.