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How Language Affects Our Understanding of Soccer

Bear with me please. This post is going to deal with a fairly obscure academic theory. But before you run off, let me suggest that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is easy to understand, extremely logical, and can explain a lot about how people around the world view the game of soccer.

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Edward Sapir (L) and Benjamin Whorf (R)

Coined by anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis holds that language does not merely serve to allow us to describe what we see as reality, but language also shapes the way we see this reality. Sapir himself wrote in his 1929 article The State of Linguistics as a Science,

Language is a guide to ‘social reality’ … It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. 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, the Japanese word for self, literally means part of a group.

This may seem like mere semantical nitpicking until one also considers the way Japanese people typically conceive of the self. Unlike Western culture, which is more inclined to view an individual on his or her own, Japanese culture views people always within the context of a group. (For further reading on this topic, I recommend Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi’s book The Anatomy of Dependence.)

Now that you’ve gone on that short journey into linguistic theory with me, perhaps you’re wondering: what does this have to do with soccer? Well, we all know that soccer, a game bound by a single set of 17 laws, looks very different in different countries. I would suggest that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis can help us at least partially explain these differences. The English and the Argentines, for example, think about the game of soccer differently because they have different languages to describe the game. As the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests, language shapes the way people around the world view the game of soccer.

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 position that might be.

Though it comes from enganchar, a word that literally means “to hook,” enganche takes on a much different meaning when used to describe a position in soccer. Enganche, it turns out, is essentially a number ten, a playmaker. The reason that I had so much trouble understanding enganche was because it was a position that didn’t fit into my frame of reference, which only had space for defenders, midfielders, and forwards.

But anyone who’s grown up in Latin America intuitively knows what an enganche is. It is the number 10, the playmaker. It is Diego Maradona, Marco Etcheverry, and Juan Román Riquelme. Spanish-speakers who use the term enganche come to expect to see a team line up with such a player. All this because their language tells them that there is such a thing as an enganche.


Juan Roman Riquelme, Argentina’s enganche at the 2006 World Cup

Italian has a similar word to enganche, which is trequartista. Literally meaning “three-quarters,” the word is often used to describe players such as Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero.

Franz Beckenbauer was a player whose unique style of play created the need for a new word to describe a newly created position. Der Kaiser began his career as a midfielder. Soon, though, he shifted his role farther back and became, essentially, a sweeper (back in the days when such a position was employed). But Beckenbauer was not content to hang back behind all of his teammates and sweep up after them. Instead, he would go forward on runs and create attacks for his team.

So, the question arose: what position was Beckenbauer playing? He was no longer a midfielder and no longer a sweeper. The German legend’s genius led to the coining of a new term, the libero. Thus, when future players such as Ronald Koeman, Franco Baresi, and Matthias Sammer played like Beckenbauer, it was easy to denote them too as liberos. Like Spanish-speakers and the enganche, people across the world (libero appears to have found a place in the soccer vernacular of many languages) knew the position existed, because it had been given a name. Again, the word libero does not just name a position, it shapes our reality by causing us to look for players in such roles (and probably led to those players choosing to play those positions in the first place).


The original libero, Franz Beckenbauer

Linguistic differences can also affect how people around the world view fouls. Just as different words are used to describe different positions, so too do words exist that make people more aware of, and sensitive to, certain types of foul play.

As a Spanish-speaker, the word I am most familiar with is la plancha. Again, its literal meaning (iron, as in the thing you get wrinkles out of clothes with) does not denote its usage in soccer, which is as 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 the offense heightens Spanish-speakers’ awareness of it.

I have become most familiar with la plancha during my time refereeing Spanish-speaking teams. Nothing is guaranteed to enrage these Latino players more than la plancha, and as a referee it is essential to keep this in mind. The same can be seen in the professional game, where teams from Latin America can often be seen gesturing to the referee after what they interpret as la plancha done by an opponent (the gesture usually involves a straight arm pointed toward the ground with the hand put flat to show the cleats exposed).


La plancha in action

Certainly, players take offense at these types of tackles around the world. But I would argue that 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 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 country has a language to describe exactly this type of tackle, and the other does not.

Enganche, trequartista, libero, 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.