The language of the beautiful game

At the World Cup in South Africa, it’s not just Brazil vs Spain and Argentina vs Everybody Else. It’s Bafana Bafana vs Les Éléphants, soccer vs football, cleats vs boots and the coach vs the gaffer.

We kick off with a story on the new adidas ball and its globally correct corporate name:  Jabulani, which means celebrate in the isiZulu language. There is, famously, a new ball for every World Cup.  Each time, the new ball is presented — and heavily marketed — as a engineering masterpiece and an advance on the last one. Maybe: the new  certainly moves through the air faster than its predecessors (which include the horrifyingly management-speak name, the Teamgeist from 2006 ). On the Jabulani, there are eleven lines and eleven colors, representing South Africa’s eleven official langages. Those linguistically-inspired lines create slight ridges on the ball, which are  controversial. Many World Cup goalkeepers think the ridges will cause the ball to swerve in the air, making it more difficult for the goalies to position themselves for saves. Of course, if that’s the case, most people — apart from goalies — will be happy: more goals, more TV viewers, more money. Fancy that: linguistic diversity acting as a fig leaf for commercialism. And just think if South Africa had 111 official languages…

There are thousands of websites and blogs to choose between for  following the World Cup and the cultural hoopla surrounding it. For stuff you won’t see anywhere else I recommend Davy Lane’s one-man South African show.  It’s full of smart, funny, non-touristy, interviews with locals. Davy also sports a not-so-mild obsession with Uruguay and its colors. Also, check out my colleague Jeb Sharp’s latest podcast on soccer and French colonialism.

Next in the podcast, a story on the race to rename streets in South African cities. The old names — usually in Afrikaans or English — are often associated with the apartheid era. As noted in previous podcast/blog posts here and here, naming and renaming places is a way of  shaping history, of controlling how it is told.

Next, we focus on a few words rooted in South Africa’s eleven official languages that may go global after this tournament. One already has: vuvuzela, even if most non-South Africans aren’t crazy about the sound this plastic horn makes.  One other word from the African continent that’s gone global, at least in the francophone world: Drogbacité. This means a spirit of reconciliation and humility, named after Ivory Coast superstar –and Africa’s finest player Didier Drogba. Three years ago, Drogba used his celebratory status to help jump-start peace talks between warring factions in Ivory Coast. Quite how central a role Drogba played is up for discussion, but suffice to say, the expression Drogbacité stuck.

Finally, a meditation on a US-English confrontation off the soccer field (or football pitch: take your pick). It is the linguistic battle over soccer/football terminology. It speaks to the nature of the often awkward, not-so-special relationship between England and the United States. England is represented here by New York-based writer Luke Dempsey; the US by broadcaster and former national team goalkeeper Shep Messing.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The language of the beautiful game

  1. Hi,

    I absolutely love your podcast, and am always recommending it to friends. Thanks for spreading the language love!

    I happen to have no interest whatsoever in football (oops, soccer, I am American), even after living in Spain all these years. But I have been adding some World Cup teaching activities to my class blog. I just found this page for helping kids learn different South African languages and thought you’d be interested: http://www.thrass.co.uk/thrassworldcuplanguages.htm
    Kids can click on the words to hear the pronunciation.

  2. Pingback: World Cup Activities | Patti Trimborn

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