Win or lose, it's how you say the game

The powerful link between soccer and linguistics.

Soccer, a game bound by a single set of 17 laws, looks very different in different countries. English soccer, for example, is to Argentinian soccer as country music is to rap. But such distinctions aren't merely a matter of style or tactics. Rather, they point to fundamental differences in how players and fans themselves perceive the game.

An obscure theory about linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis may help explain why. What does linguistics have to say about soccer? Quite a bit actually.

In a nutshell, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that language doesn't just describe reality – it shapes the way we perceive it. As anthropologist Edward Sapir put it in 1929: "Language is a guide to 'social reality'…. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality."

In the Japanese language, for example, the word for self is jibun. This word is made up of two parts, ji, which means part, and bun, which means group. Put together, jibun literally means part of a group. This has profound implications for the way the Japanese typically conceive of the self. Unlike Western culture, which emphasizes an individual's autonomy, Japanese culture views people always within the context of a group.

When I was younger, I lived for a time in Costa Rica. As I tried to get to know the Costa Rican national team, I would often ask people what position different players played. I knew the Spanish words for defender (defensa), midfielder (mediocampista), and forward (delantero), but what I got in response often did not fit into these three categories. Enganche, for example, was used to describe a position, but I had no idea what it was.

Though it comes from enganchar, a verb that means "to hook," enganche takes on a much different meaning when used to describe a position in soccer. An enganche is a playmaker. In my default frame of reference – which had room only for defenders, midfielders, and forwards – I had trouble understanding this. But anyone who's grown up in Latin America intuitively knows what an enganche is. It is Diego Maradona, Marco Etcheverry, and Juan Román Riquelme.

Spanish speakers who use the term enganche come to expect to see a team with such a player. Italian has a similar word, trequartista. Literally meaning "three-quarters," it is often used to describe players such as Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero.

Linguistic differences can also affect how people around the world view fouls.

As a Spanish-speaker, I am familiar with the term la plancha. Again, its literal meaning (an iron to remove wrinkles) does not denote its usage in soccer: a straight-legged, cleats-up tackle. Because there is a single word that describes this type of tackle, Spanish-speakers are more likely to be aware of the offense (and thus take offense at it being employed against them).

This is not to say that non-Spanish-speaking players are not sensitive to straight-legged, cleats-up tackles (speakers of all languages like their ankles in one piece). But the fact that a word exists to describe this kind of tackle heightens Spanish-speakers' awareness of it.

I have become most familiar with la plancha during my time refereeing Spanish-speaking teams. Referees understand that nothing enrages these Latino players more than la plancha. Of course, players take offense at these types of tackles around the world. But they are more frowned upon in Latin America.

Red cards are often given to players who employ la plancha in Argentina; similar tackles in the English Premier League often go unpunished. This is a difference in the style of play in these two countries, but it also reflects the fact that one has a term to describe exactly this type of tackle and the other does not.

Enganche, trequartista, and la plancha are all examples of words used in soccer that don't just describe the game, but in fact shape how their speakers see the game. Soccer may be the simplest and most universal sport, but the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis shows how language causes people around the world to see the game very differently.

David Keyes is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. A longer version of this essay first appeared on his blog, cultureofsoccer.com.

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