I Say Shutout, You Say Clean Sheet

What happens to our speech when we watch international soccer

Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro
Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro


Today Brazil plays Croatia. A fortunate few will watch the World Cup’s opening match live in São Paulo. The rest of us will camp out around screens: at home, at work, and of course at the pub, chugging foamy-headed pints between chants. We love you, we love you, we love you, and where you go we’ll follow …

American fans new to the sport (or at least to watching the game internationally) may experience a bit of a language barrier, as the New York Times’s Sarah Lyall reported earlier this week. Sure, we all know soccer is called football most everywhere else, but what are these boots and pitches and kits? And does appropriating these terms signal our know-how and enthusiasm, or does it just make us sound like jerks?

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re such an elitist,’ but 99 percent of the world calls it football, so I’m calling it football,” says one American fan interviewed in the Times piece; “I would say that calling it a pitch is not pretentious, it’s respectful. It seems disingenuous to refer to it as a soccer field,” says another. Were our men’s national team a serious contender for the Cup—and soccer fandom more common in the States—the anxiety might be less palpable. Our linguistic insecurities arise in part, I think, because sounding American, being American, just doesn’t carry much clout in the world of international soccer.

But wherever you side on the football versus soccer debate, the effects of fandom on your speech go far beyond vocabulary. Cheer along with a roomful of Italian or Brazilian or English nationals and your vowels may well shift to converge, or diverge, with the fans around you. Or perhaps the team you root for, and the regional dialect associated with that team, will prove enough to shift your speech even in the absence of other fans.

In what has to be the single coolest study in my brief career as a research scientist, my coauthor Abby Walker (who is starting as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech in the fall) and I investigated how fans altered their speech when interviewed about sports associated with different regional dialects of English.

Some background: most American accents are rhotic, meaning that almost everywhere an r is spelled out, it’s pronounced. With a few exceptions (looking at you, Boston), we drive cars and play cards. But most British accents are non-rhotic, meaning that these r’s aren’t fully realized at the end of a syllable or before a consonant: many speakers of British English drive cahs and play cahds.

So might an American fan of English Premier League soccer be slightly less rhotic when speaking about Manchester United or Arsenal than when speaking about American football teams? And how about English fans who’ve been living stateside just long enough to pick up some American football? Will their r’s sound just a bit more American when speaking about the Pittsburgh Steelers?

In an endeavor just as ridiculous as it sounds, Abby and I headed to a local soccer pub and interviewed fans between games streamed live from the UK to find out. (Note that though today’s match begins late in the afternoon, a perfectly respectable hour for drinking, we were not so lucky. Catching a Premier League game live can mean arriving at the bar—and ordering a pint—before 7 A.M. My order of choice was always Strongbow cider because it tasted the most like orange juice.)

We found that the topic of conversation—English soccer versus American football—did indeed seem to affect rhoticity in our impassioned interviewees. That is, fans were more rhotic when conversing about American football than when conversing about English soccer—particularly for our British expats, who’d had significant exposure to both British and American dialects and cultures and could seemingly move more easily between them. But the kicker is that these shifts were very small, probably too small to perceive, and almost certainly not conscious. American fans weren’t trying to sound British; British fans weren’t trying to sound American. And yet, in a tiny way, they did.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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