The World Cup may be God’s way of exposing people to foreign languages. Not that the effect will be deep or lasting. But in this anti-immigration age, stubborn monolinguals at least get the chance to hear words that sound, as my students would say, “bizarre.”
In what tongues do players communicate with their opponents? And with the referee? Since the World Cup is a TV spectacle, it’s hard to say. The lingua franca is English, but not every player is fluent, and viewers usually can’t hear what they’re saying. It depends on the game, of course, but they often seem to be speaking a tourist-variety English. And referees resort to universal sign language, as (for the first time in the World Cup) when they trace the sides of a rectangle with both hands to ask for a replay through the VAR (Video Assistant Referee).
More interesting is the abundance of accents among broadcasters. On Fox, the Cup’s English-language broadcaster, several narrators who are Spanish speakers deliver their commentary in heavily accented English, at times difficult to understand. Some nativist viewers may complain, but the reality is that fútbol is almost as popular as soccer in the United States: Through the round of 16, 2.1 million people watched the World Cup in the U.S. on Telemundo, the Spanish-language network, while 3.64 million watched on Fox. Yes, the two words refer to the same sport, but their flavor is different depending on the sound of the language in which you access them.
Telemundo, the Spanish-language broadcaster of the Cup, somehow ups the ante. Its announcers are from all over the Hispanic world, so viewers get exposed to an assortment of accents, including from participating countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay. It’s thrilling to hear so much variety, sometimes in a single game.
Fox, for its part, is trying a unique, perhaps subversive strategy. The commercials are mostly in English, but every so often one pops up in Spanish. Yes, a Spanish-language commercial on an English-language channel. The switch seems like a nod to the vast numbers of Latino/a fans in the U.S.
This fiesta of languages also results in un matadero, or a slaughterhouse. Argentines in particular use it as a metaphor to refer to a happening in which creativity turns into destruction. World Cup broadcasters regularly butcher foreign names, especially those from regions that aren’t central in people’s geographical imaginations. Croatia, for example. Depending on the network, its tireless midfielder, Luka Modrić, who rallied his team to eliminate Russia in the quarterfinals, becomes “Lucia Modrikh” or “Lucas Moordich.” Or the heroic Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois: One of the Telemundo commentators kept calling him “Tibo Curtis.”
But the best language story so far concerns writing rather than speaking. The Twitter feed of Paulina Chavira, an editor for The New York Times en Español who is passionate about how language works, has been described as “a leading forum for discussion of the Spanish language and its orthography.” Chavira realized that in previous tournaments, the shirts of the Mexican national team lacked accents on the capital letters, as in HERNANDEZ instead of HERNÁNDEZ. The omission was “a practice that carried over from the limitations of typewriters back in the day,” the Times reported. She campaigned for the error to be corrected, and she won.
(Full disclosure: I know Chavira because she edits my op-eds. While we are not always in agreement — for instance, I believe the silent “h” in Spanish should be eliminated, as well as the inverted question and exclamation marks; she doesn’t — I am awed by her linguistic knowledge.)
Chavira’s success is significant. The absence of accents may have stemmed from the misbelief that uppercase letters don’t need accents in Spanish. Chavira helped change that perception. There are only two accents in Spanish, an acute accent and a tilde. They signal pronunciation, so why give them up?
Laziness. In the United States, López is Lopez in the phonebook; Pérez becomes Perez.
Years ago, I edited a volume of César Chávez’s speeches for Penguin Classics. After a long back-and-forth with copy editors that ended up being decided by the activist’s estate, the book was credited to Cesar Chavez. Same person? Yes. But I, a new immigrant from México, was spelling it the Spanish way, while Chavez, born in Arizona, spelled it the American way.
Anyway, once the World Cup is over, you might not know any new foreign languages. In fact, you may be more confused about some of the athletes’ names, or at least how to pronounce them. Chavira’s victory notwithstanding, many of us live in a permanent state of linguistic blending. And as a Spanish speaker would write, that’s okey.