The Universal Language
September 15, 2009

Spanish Cow was feeling just a wee bit burned out the other night as Scotland’s World Cup flame was extinguished yet again, with passion and misfortune playing their usual roles.

In one of the rare breaks in a quite enthralling match, my mind wandered to language, and its many links with the ‘joga bonito’. In fact, rather than an attempt to shamelessly piggyback on a similar blog entry by the BBC website’s excellent Tim Vickery, what led to this bout of distracted daydreaming was the realisation that during this campaign, Scotland’s home crowd had not once belted out their old favourite Que Sera, Sera, a tweaked version of the linguistically suspect Doris Day signature song that first appeared in Hitchcock’s The Man who Knew Too Much.

Now, realists out there will suggest that this is simply down to the fact that Caledonia never once looked like joining Anglia and Hibernia (potentially) in South Africa next year, but I have another theory. And it’s a simple one – the lack of an obvious rhyme this time around.

The final line (“we’re going to…”) of this Hampden classic has traditionally followed two straightforward rules: 1) the last word must rhyme with “whatever will be, will be” and 2) the aforementioned last word must be a city or stadium within the host country of the World Cup/European Championship, or even the name of the country itself.

So over the years we’ve had “going to Wembul-ee“ (obviously), “going to German-ee” and even “going to gay Par-ee”. As a linguistic aside, it’s interesting that in English the expression “gay Paris”, with “Paris” pronounced à la française, has retained its original, innocent meaning, but when the French capital is given its English pronunciation and the same phrase is aired, people would instantly assume that directions to Parisian bars such as Café Moustache would be required…


I digress. Anyway, take a look at a map of South Africa – you’ll see that there aren’t that many convenient “-ee” endings floating about. “We’re going to Durban” or “we’re going to Pietermaritzburg” just don’t cut it. OK, so there aren’t any games due to be held in Pietermaritzburg, but you know what I mean. As there were no obvious candidates for this important rhyme, this rousing number never got an outing this time around, which clearly contributed to Scotland’s exit. Absolutely nothing to do with losing badly in Macedonia and Norway.

On the subject of the world’s greatest sporting competition (Olympics schmolympics), congratulations to Paraguay, who qualified for their fourth tournament in a row on the same night as thousands of sets of bagpipes were being quietly stowed away under beds across Scotland. In addition to Spanish, most of the Paraguayan team also speak another language, Guarani, which they frequently use on the field in their South American qualifying matches to bamboozle their opponents. Uruguayans and Bolivians used to hearing ‘man on’ or ‘one-two’ in Spanish suddenly have no idea what their opponents are saying. An argument for stepping up the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools, perhaps?

To finish off this fiesta of football flightiness, here’s a random smattering of tough-to-translate terms from around Europe:

‘Grand pont’ (French) – the art of knocking the ball around your opponent, leaving him standing there, while you nip round and collect the ball a couple of metres ahead of him, and continue on with your run. Called a ‘big bridge’ in contrast to the ‘petit pont’ (‘small bridge’), which entails putting the ball through your opponent’s legs. As opposed to ‘big bridge’, ‘little bridge’ does have a simple English translation – ‘nutmeg’.

‘Catenaccio’ (Italian) – seen by some as the beautiful game’s evil twin, this Italian invention involves an extremely well-organised defensive system, with strict man-to-man marking. Fortunately, it’s kind of fallen out of fashion…

‘Kicker’ (German) – confusingly for Anglophones, the noun ‘der Kicker’ or ‘die Kickerin’ in German simply refers to a football player. The verb ‘to kick’ can take several forms in German (bolzen, treten, schlagen). The verb ‘kicken’ is usually limited to the sporting domain, however.

‘Morbo’ (Spanish) – there is no true equivalent to this term in the English language. ‘Morbo’ is what gives Spanish football its legendary spice – much more than mere rivalry, it sums up the feeling between football clubs divided by politics, history, and, of course, language. Who said translation was easy, eh?

An Udderly Appropriate Name…
August 25, 2009

Bienvenue, Wilkommen, Bienvenido etc. to Spanish Cow, a brand new blog full of musings and meanderings on language, translation and the universe.

We thought it might make sense to commence this cunningly linguistic web log with a brief explanation of its name. No, it’s not just part of that oh-so-clever modern trend to randomly juxtapose two words with the aim of creating something eye-catching (blue banana, horny giraffe etc.), although, let’s face it, it does sound kinda cool.

spanish cow

In fact, it comes from the French phrase “Parler français comme une vache espagnole”; literally, to speak French like a Spanish Cow. And slightly less literally, to speak French badly (dodgy grammar, painful pronunciation etc.). A bit like the unfortunate lady locked in a French town hall recently. But it can apply to any language, when it comes down to it – these days, you’ll also hear Francophones proudly proclaiming that they’re as adept at murdering “chinois” or “anglais” as Castilian bovines.

So why does the cow from Spain get treated with disdain, in the main?  The origins of this expression – first recorded in 1640 – are as murky as a fresh cowpat, but there are two principal theories.

The first and most well-known tail, ahem, tale, blames it on the pesky Basques. The story goes that “Vache” is simply a mangling of “Basque” (“vasces” or “vasque”  in 17th-century France) – back in the day, someone with poor French was instantly compared to those supposedly illiterate barbarians living across the border…

The second, not dissimilar theory states that the word started out as “basse”, which meant “servant”, and simply became “vache” over time. With many servants having moo-ved (oh God, no) from neighbouring Spain (and presumably struggling with the lingo a little), you can see how this might have come about.

Anyway, whatever the truth may be, that’s what we’re called – we look forward to chewing the cud with you in the forthcoming weeks and months. But we promise not to milk things too much.

And here endeth the cow puns.