Saturday, 31 December 2016

Not Here We Don't: Soccer, Prescriptivism and Nationalism

Communication Process Model: Goal = Understanding
A couple of times this year BBC Capital ran articles/posts about the English language skills of native English speakers. The overall argument was that native speakers are particularly hard to understand because (quelle surprise) they use idiomatic English, speak faster and make internal references. This is a problem for international communication because, guess what, the purpose of communication is to convey meaning... and this means that word choice, sentence structure and pacing (among other things) need to be adjusted for the audience. I agree with this (and if you don't, you need to think about describing yourself as a solipsist... disagreement is beyond egoism). Where BBC Capital goes wrong is in suggesting that there is something wrong with idiomatic English's existence. There is nothing wrong with that. And while it is true that international businessmen (a gender neutral term) do need to adjust for their audience, those who don't speak idiomatic English need to try to... it is the end stage of language fluency. Now, I'm monolingual and I'd love to not be so I've got "mad respect" for those who aren't, but it cuts both way... the audience and producer both need to tango.

A Frenchman Playing for Arsenal (an English Club) in a Blog About Soccer''s Name in New Zealand (COYG)
I mention all this because I had a pretty long argument today with my (irritating) cousins. In general I'd describe myself as a descripitivist. Certainly, I'm never going to advocate for widespread English language reform (its teaching is another story). In fact, I consider being kindly disposed to such efforts childish... all that would be achieved is an enormous increase in complexity (and, also, context seems to be to decide that ghoti and goaty always rhyme). Yet, that doesn't mean that I'm not going to say that crumbed chicken is most inaccurately described as "breaded" (*spew up a little*) chicken (as an American might) because the crumbs aren't necessarily associated with bread. In fact, I have very little time for American language... except, you might think, when it comes to soccer. After all, I call soccer, well, soccer. QED. Wrong. The reality is that I call soccer soccer because soccer has been, is and should always be soccer in New Zealand. (Descriptivism is a good for nationalism, don't cha know?) Except there have been concerted prescriptive efforts (much like my "slacktivism" on the behalf of the anti-breading "movement"... perhaps unrelated is my distaste for crumbed chicken in the first place) to change this. And, based on my (quite a bit younger) cousins, it has succeeded.

Do Same Things
That New Zealanders have traditionally called soccer soccer rather than football has absolutely nothing to do with why Americans call soccer soccer. The simple way to understand why the same terms are used is by analogy, hopefully the following works: dolphins look like sharks (broadly) because they have evolved to perform similar functions in similar niches. Soccer is not a particularly old sport. If you've ever read Discworld's Unseen Academicals, you'd know that just because something is called football, that doesn't mean that it's association football... even if it's what soccer evolved from... and this evolution did, indeed, happen in real life. In fact, I think most sports trace their ancestry back to the Victorians (or their contemporaries anyway)... even if they now look different (perhaps substantially so: rule evolution happens). So, then, Americans and NZers use the same word for the same thing because similar things happened in both countries and people in Oxford came up with "soccer" in much the same way "rugger" exists. And for about 150 years, no-one cared if soccer was soccer or football (or so Wikipedia tells me).

Actually, rugby's pretty crap: play soccer, love cricket, follow... tennis
The general objection to soccer that I see is the consequence of some American complaining about the use of the word football to refer to something that isn't American football. (Americans being Americans, what can you do?) Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the argument for football comes down to "it's more accurate" (remember the crumbed chickens?) and that American football should really be given (and this is a twat's argument, and a twattier joke) the name "handegg" (clearly a more accurate description of Aussie Rules and it's strange passing procedure/s). Stupid names aside and internet pissing contests so ignored, my cousins went with the better argument that everywhere else calls it football. Well, stuff them. In much the same way that it is most unfortunate that Americans call soccer soccer too, it is completely irrelevant that football is preferred outside New Zealand, given that we're having a conversation in New Zealand... now consider the obviousness of the nationalist applications of descriptivism. And the truth is, if we want to consider the twat's argument more completely, the accuracy coin actually doesn't support the "you must call it football you morons" side (if we can call it a side).
The Real Problem With Calling Soccer Football
I can't remember how my cousins and I ended up in our argument, but I do know they were not listening to what I was saying. The truth is that I don't call any sport football and I don't think any sport ought to be called football. I will demonstrate this by example and by reason. I'm very keen on handball but it's difficult to talk about handball. Why? Well, there's Olympic/European handball and then there's handball (like kickball or bodyball)... but we've sometimes called handball Australian handball  to create certainty but there's this Wikipedia article that describes something quite different. Four-square is a variant of handball and a substantially different activity/sport itself (and a shop). In other words, it's a mess. And why is a mess? Because there is no clear external context to determine what we mean... unless we know exactly who we're talking too (i.e. a fellow handball enthusiast). The other way to consider things is that what determines accuracy is understanding... and if we're in the UK football means soccer and in the US football means American football (we don't call it gridiron here) so things are fine and dandy. The trouble is that on the internet and in New Zealand, there is no clear cultural context to give "football" a meaning. In other words, if we want to be clear, we should use soccer, American football, rugby union, rugby league and whatever else. If we want to be understood beyond a shadow of a doubt... use soccer etc.

A flag with NZE words would be better but I only saw a National Anthem version
Now, the truth is that descriptivism isn't really all that friendly to nationalism. After all, nationalism has a meaning of New Zealand (or whatever) so it is ultimately prescriptivist... a properly conservative point of view would consider things by making an honest description at time X and keeping things there. Invariably these are not honest appraisals but that's people for you. But I really don't think that it is an honourable endeavour to thrust a meaning at New Zealanders that is done for dubious reasons (i.e. we must be like them, see also flag change) and ultimately achieves nothing more than communication problems (the change has been picked up). It was not so long ago that some dude at a Top Ten Holiday Park tried to tell me about his football match (or one he watched, I don't recall) and I had to clarify that he didn't mean football. I call soccer soccer not because it would be useful if everyone did (and no-one called anything football) but because soccer is part of New Zealand English as much chilly bin, sweet as and haere mai. Communication is many things, and one of those is recognising that you don't have a right to be understood... although American English is stupid and should die (embrace the hypocrisy).

Also, this.

1 comment:

  1. Look, this wasn't the world's most serious post but I could very easily have made it more serious. The relationship of linguistics and nationalism (or, at least, language) is complex and storied. It is, also, something that I should have been thinking about when I wrote it. Just because you're not serious, that doesn't automatically free you from the heavy baggage.

    That being said, I was reading this list called "75 Of The Most New Zealand Sayings Ever" and I was thinking stuff like "Well, you never really hear that," "This is from a movie" and "Well, okay, maybe people actually do say this stuff but for Christ's Sake they're hardly "kiwi" [I'd forgotten the title], look at 'ta'!" I mean, read the dialogue quoted in this piece about the (quite brilliant*) Auf Wiedersehen, Pet If you're not convinced, I reckon a lot of New Zealanders would struggle with some of the dialogue... at least until you get familiar with it.

    Anyway, reading that list got me thinking again about the claimative aspects of this linguistic-nationalism-lite... and therefore about this post. There's definitely room to expand this into a proper post, but why do that, eh?

    *Gold Age of television? My arse. Go watch some British stuff from the late '80s and early-mid '90s... then get back to me. Breaking Bad's good, Cracker's better.