Comparing Sporting Codes to Languages.

This is a quick piece, I’ve had it in my head for a while so I thought if it wasn’t going to leave any time soon, I’d write it down. It’s based around the premise, is the development of different sporting codes similar to that of different languages?

As previous readers of this blog may recall, I wrote another short piece a little while ago comparing the political spectrum to dietary choices. I think I must just think in analogies-they’re a useful enough way of making sense of the world. If you have read this blog before, you may well have seen my ten memorable books list of 2019, where I mentioned Tony Collins’ How Football Began, the history of the early development of the various professional football codes that have come to spread around the world. I think since at least the time I read that last Christmas I’ve been thinking of the following list I’m about to share-and probably longer.

I’ve not necessarily matched sports up to the countries that they are played in, or ‘suit their character’ or whatever, but more in how they relate to each other (more on that below). First, here’s the list for the football codes:



Rugby Union-Spanish

Rugby League-Portuguese

Aussie Rules-Italian

Gaelic football-Romanian

American football-English



So, a little rationale for my choices: first of all, I think the match-up of romance languages to the football world works because they are both broad, diverse extended families from a common origin (Latin/medieval village football). French, like soccer, is arguably the ‘prestige’ variety and (and this is the true reason for me matching them up) ‘the odd one out’-it is markedly different from the other variants whilst still clearly related to them and is entirely comfortable with that.

Coming on to rugby, I think union/Spanish and league/Portuguese works very well. The former is more popular globally and that is largely through transmission/exposure through the colonial system of the Castilian and British Empires respectively. The pairing works very well I think-speakers of Portuguese and Spanish, like players of league and union, automatically have a big head-start in terms of cross-over and mutual intelligibility compared to outsiders approaching them for the first time. Also rugby league, like Portuguese, is bigger in a country (Australia and Brazil respectively)  other than its birthplace (the North of England and Portugal). I think that’s a big reference point of comparison.

I’ve likened Aussie rules to Italian (both direct descendants of the original code, big in it’s one particular heartland and, whilst often admired from afar, taken up by very few people outside of its own direct constituency).  Gaelic football/Romanian because they are frequently forgotten about but deserve their place. American football and English was a last-moment addition to the list-it fits and it doesn’t-speakers of English, like American football fans, often don’t really think of there being much of a kinship between their code and the others and see it as a code apart. But I think that’s as far as the analogy stretches-English as a language is incredibly widespread, but American football is highly localised (albeit to a very large country/internal market).

I was also thinking of doing a list looking at the ball-and-stick games (cricket, baseball, rounders, hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse etc) to another language family-maybe the Germanic one as I can think of enough countries that come under that umbrella to do a match-up. English is also as much of (if not more so) a Germanic language as it is a romance one and that would mean having to select another sport (instead of the aforementioned American football) that fits the bill more closely-hurling is the perfect hybrid (and, having watched a bit on YouTube for research purposes whilst writing this post, pretty spectacular) but in it’s very localised appeal it’s the total opposite of the English language, which as of writing functions as kind of global lingua franca.

In a nutshell, though, I think the original concept is a sound one: sports are like languages, they develop, diversify and split, their rules akin to grammar and the different styles of play witnessed in different locales the same as accents and dialects in a spoken tongue. I’d be interested to know what others think about it.