An Examination of the Language of Sport in Nigeria

An Examination of the Language of Sport in Nigeria


The issue of the existence of a language synonymous with sport often generates debates amongst scholars. Many regard it as simple an aspect of a language that describes sporting events as perceived by the language users and not as a full-fledged specialized language variety. This study therefore, seeks to correct certain misconceptions about the language of sport and also to establish that it is not a vague or abstract coinage but a working language framework for sporting activities.


It is impossible to fully understand and appreciate contemporary society without acknowledging the place of sport. It is largely a part of the social and cultural fabric of different localities, regions and nations. It contributes to economies, an instrument of international peace and relations, transformative, important to the film and television industries and it is regularly associated with social problems and issues such as violence, crime, racism amongst many others. In other words, it is an international phenomenon. The etymology of the word ‘sport’ comes from the old French word ‘desport’ which means ‘leisure’. Wikipedia defines sport as any form of competitive physical activity through casual or organized participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants and in some cases, entertainment for spectators (npn).

Sport is a prominent social institution in almost every society because it combines the characteristics found in any social institution with a unique appeal only duplicated by perhaps religion. This uniqueness is expressed in the mystique it commands and the nostalgia it stirs up. Frey and Eitzen assert that ‘no other activity so paradoxically combines the serious with the frivolous, playfulness with intensity and the ideological with the structural’ (504). It is an arena of patterned behaviours, social structures and inter-institutional relationships that holds unique opportunities to study and understand the complexities of social life. For decades, the increasing popularity of sport as a media event is totally phenomenal, a function of various media platforms such as the press, the radio, the television and the internet with language playing a very crucial role. This has resulted in what could be termed the language of sport; a significant driver of this unique social institution.


The language of sport generally refers to a specialized variety of language used in the sport milieu by various sport stakeholders or participants (coaches, players, supporters, sporting agencies, etc). In other words, this language variety has its unique register of sport used to express, reflect or capture the peculiarities of sporting events. According to Spurr (82), the language of sport is ‘the linguistic representation of sporting activity’.On the contrary, Polok, cited by Taborek argues that we cannot speak about the language of sport but only about its technical or professional vocabulary inserted in the general language. Referring to his native language; Polish, he affirms ‘there is just Polish sport vocabulary as a part of the general Polish general lexis’ (120). This explains why some persons outrightly refuse to regard sport language as a language variety because it is often deployed or used on various sporting occasions howbeit spontaneously and unconsciously.

Liponski, a German philologist does not agree with this view. Rather he argues that the language of sport exist long before we even thought to acknowledge it. Hence, cited by Taborek, he opines that ‘the language of sport has been existing since antiquity (238). The names of ancient sports, their descriptions and reflections on them have been preserved in classical texts. Since time immemorial the language of sport has been a rich area of specialist linguistic communication’. In this regard, it is incontrovertible that contrary views against the language of sport lack valid points and cannot stand.

However, it is significant to recognize that the word ‘sport’ is broad because it refers to a conglomeration of different physical activities/ games which have assumed various names in decades. To this end, there are various sports like football, volleyball, hockey, rugby, pole vault, swimming and many others. Furthermore, there are words or terms peculiar to each of these numerous sporting events which could be termed semantic fields (register) of different sports. Hence, we have the register of football, hockey, polo, basketball and many others. In this regard, it is plausible to conclude that a combination of these semantic fields basically forms the framework for the language of sport. The language of sport just like every other language or language variety can and will be examined and discussed from different dimensions: Linguistics and Sociolinguistics dimensions.

Linguistics Dimension: This aspect centres on the study of language(s) using various approaches like pragmatics, syntax, phonology, discourse analysis, semantics, etc. These approaches could be generally categorized into the three broad views (text-linguistics view, pragmatics view and cognitive view) in other to expatiate more on the language of sport.

Text-linguistics view encompasses all forms of discourse (spoken and written) in sport circles which of course takes place in the language of sport. Sporting events are replete with many events documented in text form like commentaries on various sporting events. These commentaries could be on live football matches, rugby matches, hockey matches, basketball matches and so on transmitted via various media platforms like the television, radio, the internet or through the press (newspaper commentaries). Another form in which discourse occurs are news combined with quotes from match participants, columns with analysis and opinions, information presented in tabular forms (tables of teams, list of scorers, winners and losers, point, match standings), interviews and players’ profiles with accurate statistical and background data.

Pragmatic view centres on the study of specific communicational situations in the context of sporting events. This view adopts several pragmatics frameworks like the conversational principles and speech act theories in the analysis of diverse communication scenarios in sporting events. In this regard, the communication between referees or between coaches and players are subjects of pragmatic analysis. The chants of supporters as well as communication between team mates can also be subjected to pragmatic analysis.

The cognitive view hinges on the study of the language of sport in other to identify its inherent features on several linguistic levels such as the morpho-syntactic, phonological and discourse levels. It unearths the various morphological processes involved in the formation of the unique lexical elements peculiar to the language of sport.
Sociolinguistics Dimension: One of the major theoretical underpinnings of sociolinguistics is the social identity of participants (speaker and hearer) in a sociolinguistic context. This sociolinguistics standpoint is in consonance with Sapir’s view of language that it is purely human and non-instinctive method of communication. Therefore, it is plausible to affirm that language cannot be performed by abstract entities, rather by humans who definitely have a social identity. In this regard, various sporting occasions absolutely require the use of language; the language of sport. However, the use of the language by participants in a sporting context makes it effortless in deciphering their social identity. These participants are either the sportsmen (coaches, referees and player) or the supporters, each with peculiarities in language use. Consequently, the language use peculiar to each of these participants will be discussed from two perspectives: the language of sportsmen and the language of supporters.

The language of sportsmen covers the communication of or between referees, players and coaches during a sporting event. According to Taborek, the communication that takes place in sport context is ‘determined by the dynamics of the situation and a high degree of specialization of the participants which results firstly in special terminology and secondly in the simplified structures used by them’ (241). For instance, during a football match, players may raise their hands to suggest to the referee that they are being fouled by the opponents and vice versa. Sometimes, they could also make persuasive gestures to the referee to issue cards (yellow or red) to their opponents. The coaches also use specialize terms like formation (442 or433), right wing, left wing, midfield and attack. The various signs or gestures made by these players are specialized which corroborates Tworek’s assertion. In the internal communication between coaches and players, several specialized signs are also used to pass across specific instructions. In football matches for example, it is common to find coaches waving, swinging or scribbling down instructions all in a bid to communicate effectively with the players in achieving the collective goal of winning. On the contrary, certain communicative signs are spontaneous and the communication between players and coaches differs from the one between the players and the referees.

The language of supporters significantly differs from that of the sportsmen due to their function-specific roles in a sporting context. Basically, the role of supporters during any sporting event is to raise or boost the morale of their teams or players competing in a match. In the course of discharging their duties, they often resort to loud rhythmic chants, patterned gestures and claps in a bid to charge up their teams. Sometimes, they could use specialized language forms as may be the case. In Nigeria for instance, supporters are noted for chants like ‘all we are saying, give us one goal’. In well organized leagues like the English Premier League (EPL), the chants are usually based on pop songs or hymns like ‘You Never Walk Alone’ (Liverpool FC), Glory, Glory Man United (Manchester United FC). The verbal communication of supporters is often accompanied with various forms of choreographies and graffiti to show support.


The study will adopt a content analysis to examine the syntactic and lexical features of sport columns. The language of sport does have its inherent linguistic properties which will be the focus of the analysis. Also, the semantic fields will be examined as every sport as its peculiar terms.


NNPC/SHELL CUP: FOSLA, Excel qualify for final-Wednesday, JUNE 15, 2016.

Two teams FOSLA Academy, Abuja and Excel Education Centre Port Harcourt on Tuesday qualified for the final of 2016 NNPC/Shell cup competition organized for all secondary schools in the country. FOSLA defeated Asegun Comprehensive High school 3-0 in the first semifinal encounter in the match decided at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere. It was a highly interesting match which brought out the best in the two sides to the delight of the representatives of Feyenoord Academy who were also present at the venue. Abdullahi Muhammad scored twice while Alayi Haruna scored the third goal for FOSLA Academy. The Feyenoord representatives from Holland with Nigeria’s former international, Mike Okibu, in the team had a training session with the four semi-finalists on Tuesday morning.

In the second semifinal, Excel walloped Science School 4-0 in another entertaining encounter which saw Ogidi Joseph recording a hatrick for the Port Harcourt team. Benjamin Jacob is the other scorer of the team in the one sided match. The stage is now set for the final which takes place at the same venue on Thursday. “Both the finalists and semifinal losers are still going to continue intensive training under the supervision of our team. These players are very strong and all they need now are little tips to better their career,” Obiku said.


Lexico-Semantic Features: Firstly, certain words chiefly belong to the register of football, perhaps the most popular sport. The primary reason is that the data is a report or commentary of an already played football match. These words are only understood by persons who have an idea of the game of football. Thus, we have words like: semi-finalist, semifinal, hatrick, goal, final and players.

Semi-final refers to the last but one stage in a football competition. Four teams do participate in this stage from which two teams will progress to the next stage called the final.

Semi-finalists are the teams qualified to participate in the semi-final stage of a football competition.

Hatrick refers to three goals scored by a player in a particular match.

Goal refers to the act of using the legs or head to put the ball into the net in a football match.

Players refer to the persons/individuals that participate in a football match on the field.

Other words like ‘teams’, ‘cup’, ‘training session’, ‘match’ and ‘stadium’ are not limited to football competitions but used in many other sports.

Also, certain words are verbs by word class but also used to describe various scenes in a football match. Examples are ‘defeated’, walloped’, ‘encounter’, and ‘scored’. Sport commentators often use many of these words to relay matches and also describe the outcome of such matches to supporters and fans. In addition, the use of adjectives is obvious in order to depict or recreate the fanfare and anxieties that often comes with such football matches. Examples are ‘highly’, ‘entertaining’, ‘one-sided’, ‘intensive’ and ‘strong.

Syntactic Features: The use of complex and compound sentences is very peculiar to sport commentaries and reportage because of the need to capture and portray entire sporting events in concise forms. Thus, in the data, the outcome is the same evident in the use of complex sentences to relay the events of the match. Examples are:

FOSLA defeated Asegun Comprehensive High School 3-0 in the first semifinal encounter in the match… (Complex sentence)

In the second semi-final, Excel walloped Science School 4-0 in another entertaining encounter which saw… (Complex sentence)


The language of sport is a special language used in specialized communication and not just a register for a world phenomenon (sport) because it appears in many fields of communication activity. This specialized language has developed over time to have it own orthographic, morphological and phonological features as the case. Therefore, the language of sport is nonetheless a specialized variety that is gaining prominence perhaps beyond any other due to the pulling power of sport across nations of the world.


Frey, James H., Stanley, D. Eitzen. “Sport and Society.” Annual Review of Sociology. 17 (1991): 503-22. Print
Liponski, Kasini. “Distinctiveness of Language of Sport: Studies in Physical Culture & Tourism.” Journal of Sport and Culture. XVI/I (2009): 19-37. Print

Olajire, Tosin. “NNPC/SHELL CUP: FOSLA, Excel qualify for Final.” Daily Sun. 15 June. 2016: A2. Print
Polok, Willan. Issues in Sport and Challenges. Maine: Rudwell, 2002. Print

Spurr, Barry. “The Language of Sport.” Journal of Australian Sport Journalism. 20 (2010): 82-98. Print
Taborek, Janusz. The Language of Sport: Some Remarks on the Language of Football. Journal of Football Commentaries. 56 (2012):238-252. Print

Wikipedia. Sport .n.d. web . 20 July. 2005

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