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.

Did you know that Swedish and Norwegian have word melodies similar to Chinese?

NJL coverBlog post based on an article in Nordic Journal of Linguistics written by Mikael Roll

Did you know that Swedish and Norwegian have word melodies similar to Chinese? The article ‘A neurolinguistic study of South Swedish word accents: Electrical brain potentials in nouns and verbs‘ reports on previously unexplored brain responses to word tones in South Swedish.

The study adds strong support to the hypothesis that listeners use Swedish word stem tones to preactivate upcoming suffixes. Previous research had consistently found an increase in electrical brain response for one of the Swedish stem tones – accent 1 – as compared to the other tone – accent 2.

This increase in electrical brain response is thought to index preactivation of upcoming language, such as a suffix. Accent 1 stems are associated with fewer possible outcomes, and are therefore thought to increase the certainty of how a word might end. However, previously only the Central Swedish dialect had been investigated, and therefore it was uncertain whether the effect found was really due to the difference in possibilities associated with accent 1 and 2, or rather the acoustic difference between the tones.

In South Swedish, accent tones 1 and 2 are acoustically the mirror image of those in Central Swedish. Still, accent 1 produced a reaction indicating that the electrical brain response seems to reflect preactivation of upcoming suffixes, rather than a difference in acoustic processing.

Access the full article for free until 31st July.

Rare passives develop a special use

NJL CoverBlog post written by Elisabet Engdahl based on an article in Nordic Journal of Linguistics

English and the mainland Scandinavian languages share a typologically rare feature: complements of prepositions can be promoted to subjects in so called prepositional passives, as in the often cited English example this bed has been slept in by George Washington. Several researchers have proposed that prepositional passives are restricted by a notion of affectedness; the passive verb phrase typically expresses a significant property, or a change in a significant property, of the subject-referent.

A detailed study of 3600 potential prepositional passives in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish reveals that affectedness is relevant also in these languages – but it is a different notion of affectedness. The prepositional passive subject is typically animate, a person or an animal, who is psychologically affected by the action, or the lack of action, expressed by the participle. The construction is commonly used with Scandinavian counterparts of predicates like laughed at, listened to and talked to and very rarely, if ever, with predicates like slept in or lived in.

Additional corpus investigations show that prepositional passives are quite infrequent; on average they are used 3 times per million words (mw) in Swedish, 5/mw in Danish and 16/mw in Norwegian texts and probably a bit more frequently in spoken language. We have not been able to find comparable frequency figures for English. Would a large scale study of the use of prepositional passives in English confirm the notion of affectedness described in the literature, i.e. as involving physical objects that acquire notoriety? Or are there more similarities in the use between English and Scandinavian than would be expected given the descriptions of these rare passives?

Access the full article ‘Prepositional passives in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish: A corpus study’ here

Scandinavian prosody – same, but different!

NJL CoverBlog post written by Sara Juul Clausen and Line Burholt Kristensen based on an article published in Nordic Journal of Linguistics 

Can you hear the difference between the two Danish words mor and mord?

 (Click on the blue links to listen to the sound files)

mor (‘mother’) [moɐ̯]

mord (‘murder’) [moɐ̯ˀ]

Mord contains a stød /ˀ/, whereas mor doesn’t. Stød is a unique prosodic feature of Standard Danish: a creaky voice that is lexically distinctive. Though uniquely Danish in some sense, the stød/non-stød distinction can also be seen as a parallel to Swedish and Norwegian word tones (Accent 1 vs. Accent 2).

In terms of distribution, stød resembles Accent 1: If a particular Danish word is pronounced with stød, the Swedish and Norwegian equivalents of this word form will usually be pronounced with Accent 1. This also goes for suffixes. For instance, the singular definite suffix -en is associated with stød and with Accent 1, while the plural suffix -e/-ar is associated with non-stød and Accent 2.


’game’ + singular definite suffix is realized as… ’game’ + plural suffix is realized as…
Standard Danish legen [stød] lege [non-stød]
Central Swedish leken [Accent 1, i.e. low tone] lekar [Accent 2, i.e. high tone]


Despite these distributional (and diachronic) correspondences, Danish stød and Swedish/Norwegian Accent 1 are not entirely equivalent. In a recent psycholinguistic response time study, we show that the way speakers of Danish react to words with stød is similar to the way speakers of Swedish react to words with Accent 2. We therefore conclude that while stød is distributionally similar to Accent 1, the status of stød corresponds to that of Accent 2 when it comes to cognitive markedness.

 You can read the article ‘The cognitive status of stød’ from Nordic Journal of Linguistics here


An update from the incoming Editors of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics

NJL 2015 CoverBlog post written by the incoming Editors of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics: Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Marit Julien & Matti Miestamo

The last few years have been a transition period in the editorship of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics (NJL). Sten Vikner and Catherine Ringen, who have served as editors since 2001, are stepping down and a new editorial team is taking over. A few years ago it was agreed that in order to avoid an abrupt change in the editorship, Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Matti Miestamo and Marit Westergaard would join the editorial team first as associate editors, and accordingly, in 2012-2014, the team had five members. Now the time has come for the new editors to take over completely, and from 2015 on, the editors of the journal are Hansson, Miestamo and Marit Julien, who now replaces Westergaard on the editorial team. Fredrik Heinat remains review editor as before. We wish to express our warm thanks to Sten and Cathie for their invaluable service to the Journal and to the Nordic linguistic community over the past decade and a half, as well as for their help and advice during our first years as NJL editors. We would also like to thank Marit Westergaard for the smooth cooperation we have had during the last three years.

We would like to point out to our readers and potential contributors that there are now four ways to contribute to NJL. In addition to the three traditional submission categories of (longer) articles, short communications, and book reviews, we have added a fourth category, review articles. We would very much like to encourage contributions to NJL within all four categories, including short communications, which are like articles in being peer-reviewed, but different from articles in that in such a communication, it is possible to make or illustrate an empirical point without necessarily giving a fully fledged and theoretically integrated analysis. Also, short communications are appropriate for comments on earlier publications in the Journal. Review articles are like book reviews in discussing a recent book of major importance or relevance to the NJL readership (or two or more books on the same topic), but the greater length allows for more detailed and substantial evaluation and critique. Like book reviews, review articles will typically be invited by the Editors, but unsolicited submissions in this category are also welcome.Information concerning submissions and instructions for contributors can be found at http://journals.cambridge.org/NJL. Note that NJL has a new email address for submissions and general queries: [email protected]

We are furthermore happy to announce that issue 39.2 (2016) of NJL will be a special issue devoted to Discourse, Grammar and Intersubjectivity, edited by Marja Etelämäki, Ilona Herlin, Tapani Möttönen and Laura Visapää. For full details, see the call for papers here.

Variation in Faroese and the development of a spoken standard: In search of corpus evidence

NJL 2014Post written by Remco Knooihuizen based on an article in the latest issue of Nordic Journal of Linguistics 

A common theme in many European languages is that differences between dialects are becoming smaller. There are several in which this can happen: the strengthening of standard languages, frequent contact between people from different places (“dialect levelling”), or the spread of the dialect from an influential centre to other places. In many well-studied languages, these processes are difficult to tell apart because they interact and have been going on for a long while. But if we look at smaller languages, where these processes are more recent, we can find out more about the role of the different processes in dialect change.

One such language is Faroese, a Scandinavian language spoken by some 50,000 speakers in the Faroe Islands between Scotland and Iceland. The islands have known rapid social change after World War II, with improved transport links and Faroese-language media and education — three developments that map onto the processes of levelling, dialect spread and standardisation, respectively. There is evidence that dialect differences are decreasing in Faroese and that a more standard version of the language, called “Central Faroese”, is on the rise.

This study looks at a collection of recordings of spoken Faroese to chart the change in two linguistic variables, to see which mechanisms best account for the change. One variable is phonological (the pronunciation of the -ir and -ur endings which occur frequently in the language), the other is morphological (the occurrence of -st verb endings). Importantly, each mechanism would suggest a different course of change for these variables, which would allow us to tell the processes apart. We looked at two kinds of variables because Faroese language education focuses on ‘correct’ grammar, but no model pronunciation is taught in schools.

The analysis of the recordings confirms the geographical variation that we know exists in the language. However, there are very few differences between older and younger speakers from the same location, suggesting that there isn’t much language change going on. Speakers also don’t speak differently in informal conversations than they do in more formal interviews, where we would expect Central Faroese to appear. This is probably due to the close-knit Faroese society: because “everyone knows everyone”, there is less reason to use very formal speech styles and changes in these styles progress more slowly.

Read the full article ‘Variation in Faroese and the development of a spoken standard: In search of corpus evidence’ here