Two short legs and a silly point: learn (about) English through cricket

Posted by on March 24, 2009

cricketCricket is the most quintessentially English game, but is famously incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been brought up with it. (The phrase in the title here makes perfect sense to an aficionado of the game but could easily be misinterpreted by anyone else.) George W. Bush – not the sharpest knife in the drawer – thought cricket “looks a bit like polo and baseball combined, only without the horses”. Hmmm … not quite, George.

One of the things that puts people off cricket is its apparently unfathomable vocabulary. But the language of cricket is just one of thousands of “sublanguages” in English, and like most aspects of language it has its own logic. Once you have cracked the system, it all becomes much clearer … and anyone learning any language will find it much easier if they understand some underlying “rules” about how language works.

So the idea here is not to indoctrinate readers into the language of cricket, but to use this as a medium to explore how language functions at a more general level. Cricketspeak is a microcosm of the English language, and of language per se. Think of a language as consisting of, first, a central core – the common vocabulary we need for any and every form of written or spoken communication – then, an infinite number of sublanguages, such as the terminology used by beekeepers, oncologists, online gamers, or language-teachers. Sublanguages tend to embody most of the features of a language system, so by learning about one particular sublanguage you can actually learn a lot about language in general.

That’s the premise behind this short series of blogs, which will show how most linguistic concepts can be explained and illustrated through the language of cricket. Future blogs in the series will look at concepts such as:

  • word-formation: for example, how we often take English nouns and turn them into verbs (have you Facebooked anyone recently?)
  • figurative language: metaphor, metonymy and similar processes are pervasive in all languages – and they have a key role in the way we attach meanings to words. These concepts can all be illustrated through the vocabulary of cricket.
  • terminology: every sublanguage has its distinct terminology, and cricket – with terms like googly, yorker and doosra – is no exception.
  • polysemy: how common words develop new and often specialised meanings: when we say a cricketer is on strike this has nothing to do with refusing to work, as we’ll see later. Most of cricket’s vocabulary is based not on obscure terms, but on very ordinary words (like the ones in the title above) that have taken on new meanings. Rabbit, duck, and lobster, for example, all have special meanings for cricket fans.
  • gender, class and other sociolinguistic issues: like any other activity, cricket is played in a changing world, and its language reflects these changes.
  • regional variation: how the same concept can have different names depending on where you are. Cricket started in England (well, probably – more on that in the next posting) but has spread to many parts of the world, and different speech communities have their own take on the language. There’s an incident in the movie Slumdog Millionaire where the kids are chased off a patch of private land where they’re playing cricket: the game’s epicentre is no longer the UK, but India – and this has implications for the language too.
  • wordplay: this is a feature of language worldwide, and cricketspeak has plenty of examples.
  • language change: everywhere in the language, older words fall out of use and new ones come along – but what are the mechanisms by which these things happen? Exploring obsolescence and neologism in cricket will help to reveal the rules behind these processes.

These are some of the topics we’ll look at in coming blogs. The principle behind all this is a belief that language is almost never random: the way it works and the way it develops tends to be governed by systems – some of which are mentioned above. These systems aren’t always easy to pick out among the idiosyncrasies of real communication, but they’re always lurking in the background. The more we understand about them, the better equipped we’ll be to teach, learn, and use languages – and cricket is as good a medium as any for this kind of exploration. Watch this space.

Read part 2 (origins) here and part 3 (terminology) here.

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