Monday, July 25, 2016

Why language is such good sport

Previously, I suggested that coffee chains and their pseudo-Italian-American lexicon provided possible evidence of the way that English was changing its attitudes when it came to borrowings. My argument was that asking for 'a triple-shot mocha with soya to go' made consumers feel part of something exclusive; that it somehow helped 20- and 30-somethings to rediscover the joys of using slang with their teenage friends. In short, coffee shops had become closed language communities of their own. This doesn't have quite the same socio-political implications of Milroy's study, but you get the idea. 

However, I'd hate to be thought of as an inverted coffee snob and so I turned my gaze elsewhere. 

Watching Chris Froome claim his third Tour de France title yesterday got me thinking about the language of sport in all its glorious vagary. It is every bit as elitist as coffee and fine dining in its choice of lexis, often seeming like a different language intended for the few, rather than the many. 

In cycling, it literally is a different a language, filled with borrowings of French origin. Why have a referee when you can have a commissaire? As a noun, it sounds so much more important and sophisticated. Then we have the collective noun for the main group of riders: peloton. And let's not forget that the peloton gets strung out into echelons in strong cross winds, aching to pass under the flame rouge as they go over the final classified climb, supported by their domestiques! It's a delightful lexicon, but what on earth does a novice make of it?

And what of tennis?

As Sue Barker rounds up the day's scores, she casually announces that Federer is through in straight sets with a triple bagel, while Djokovic battled through a five-setter, eventually triumphing three, six, six, two and six, breaking twice in the decider. What does this mean to anyone out of the loop?

Golf offers little reprieve. Spieth leads Day by a single shot at seven under after eagling the par five ninth, while a wild tee shot from Day saw him double bogey the par four eighth. From this, we are meant to know what their scores were before these shots! (Incidentally, it would've meant that Day had led on -8 with Spieth three behind on -5.) 

Of course, there are sports like football where everyone knows the terminology, even though they might not quite grasp the rules, but with the Olympics fast-approaching, viewers are sure to be treated to a whole new world of sporting jargon. The question is, why do we tolerate it?

Because we want to learn. We all want to sound like experts in any field, nodding sagely at the right moments. The commentators are our teachers, describing what we are seeing on our screens so that we can match the words (usually nouns) to the actions. If you don't listen hard, you'll loft one into the deep and find yourself caught out!

Once again, specialist, field specific lexis is a tool that helps us become a part of something from which we would otherwise be excluded. Is it so wrong to want to join the club? Language is used in a self-seeking way from the moment we are born, we just become better practitioners in the art of manipulation as we grow. The ability to feel comfortable on a shared topic in any company is incredibly beneficial, so let's not shun the language's ever-changing vocabulary...let's take in as much as we can and go for gold. Well, a podium finish at least. 

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