What is offside in German or Icelandic? Football English in European languages

Based on an article in Nordic Journal of Linguisticswritten by Gunnar Bergh and Sölve Ohlander.

“Football and English are the only truly global languages.” This statement, attributed to the legendary English footballer Sir Bobby Charlton, of 1966 World Cup fame and still to be seen at Old Trafford during Manchester United’s home games, neatly hints at the dual point of departure for this article. The present status of English as the most global language of all is not in doubt, nor is that of football (soccer) as the most widespread sport – or, rather, pop cultural phenomenon – on the planet, with a media presence bordering on obsession. Consequently, football language, i.e. the language used in communication about the game (on and off the pitch, in speech and writing, by players, fans and commentators) may well be regarded as the world’s biggest “special language” – “special” despite its familiarity to vast numbers of football fans across the globe. For example, sentences like The back crossed into the box for the striker to head home or The diving attacker was awarded an extra-time penalty but was denied by the keeper present no problems to English-speaking football fans but are virtually incomprehensible to those lacking even basic knowledge of football.

As is well known, the modern variety of the game started in Britain in the 1860s. A few decades later, it was well on its way to conquering the world; so was football language. The focus of this article is the impact of English football vocabulary in the form of loan translations (calques) in a wide sense, involving word-for-word or morpheme-for-morpheme translation, such as Swedish hörna ‘corner’ and German abseits ‘offside’ – in contrast to direct loans such as offside in, e.g., Norwegian (as well as earlier in German) – as manifested in 16 European languages from different language families (Germanic, Romance, Slavic, etc.). Drawing on a set of 25 English football words from various contexts or spheres (e.g. football, match, corner, forward, dribble, tackle, head, offside, team, hooligan), it emerges that there is considerable variation among the languages studied with regard to their propensity to use loan translation or direct borrowing when importing English football vocabulary, where the same language may vary over the period investigated, the better part of the 20th century. This also means that, occasionally, a language may have – or have had – dual terminology for the same English football word, as in the case of Norwegian corner and hjørne for English corner.

Further, some English football words seem to have been more prone to direct borrowing than to loan translation, and (though less frequently so) vice versa. For example, offside turns up as a direct loan in 15 languages, as a loan translation in only three; football is a direct loan in 12 languages (e.g. Spanish fútbol), a loan translation in nine (e.g. German Fussball). It appears, in this connection, that it is difficult to pin down exactly why a specific football word was adopted as a direct loan or turned into a loan translation in a certain language, while another was not. However, a potentially relevant factor may be connected to the interrelated notions of “semantic complexity” and “translatability”. Words like offside and dribble, on account of their relative semantic complexity or specificity, as witness cumbersome dictionary definitions, may not be readily loan-translated into another language without losing the very specific meanings associated with them.

Further, varying and changing attitudes to borrowing, especially in the form of direct loans, between and within specific languages during the 20th century, may be assumed to have played an important part in the choice between direct loans, loan translations and other indigenous creations (e.g. Italian calcio). As far as individual languages are concerned, Icelandic displays the largest number of loan translations, hardly surprising in view of Icelanders’ time-worn policy of resistance to direct borrowing. Interestingly, Norwegian, closely related to Icelandic but lacking a restrictive language-planning policy in these matters, instead boasts the largest number of direct loans. Overall, combining direct loans and loan translations, Finnish ends up last, with the lowest number of English football loans of whatever kind; indigenous solutions are apparently preferred over borrowing.

Overall, the study indicates a clear preponderance of direct loans in comparison with loan translations among the languages studied. This outcome, however, partly derives from certain methodological problems in the material studied, taken from Manfred Görlach’s A Dictionary of European Anglicisms (2001), with its implicit bias towards direct loans. At the same time, generally speaking, it seems that purely linguistic circumstances – such as formal/structural factors, relative genetic and/or typological distance in relation to English – seem clearly less significant in accounting for the borrowing patterns in the different languages than those related to sociolinguistically potent variables, such as prevailing attitudes and language-planning policies in different communities, as well as changes over time within the same language community.

And, yes, the Icelandic word for offside is rangstæður.

View and download “Loan translations versus direct loans: The impact of English on European football lexis,” by Gunnar Bergh and Sölve Ohlander, for free during June and July 2017.

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