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Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #9

This week’s Roundup comes from the sports department.

Caster Semenya, gender tests, and bodies out of place

On Tuesday of this week the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that 19-year-old middle distance runner Caster Semenya will be allowed to return to international competition. After Semenya won the 800 meter race at the World Championships in Berlin last August, various critics charged that she may not be a woman and therefore should be disqualified.

The IAAF ordered gender testing to determine whether Semnya was eligible to compete as a woman. In November of 2009 the federation announced that Semenya would be allowed to keep the gold medal she earned, but did not say whether she would be allowed to compete in future events, and refused to discuss gender testing.

This week the IAAF cleared Semenya to return to competition immediately, but again avoided details of the agreement or the gender verification procedure.
The New York Times described the November announcement here.

ESPN covered of the reinstatement announcement (per Associated Press).

In the weeks after the 2009 championships, Semnya’s gender and her sexual identity were a topic of discussion on the web and in the tabloid press. On September 11, 2009, the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported, “the South African world champion has no womb or ovaries,” and recommended “immediate surgery.”

The South African magazine You responded with a photo layout featuring Semenya with relaxed hair in fashionable clothes and make-up. (You magazine’s web page appears to be down. See the cover photo on the blog B4tea.)

Britain’s Daily Mail digested the back and forth between Australian and South African media.

Since that time the New York Times has featured a number of pieces on Semenya and gender in sports.

In her 12 September New York Times essay, Northwestern University bioethics professor Alice Dreger noted that “the science of sport has outpaced the philosophy of sport.” Sports officials are now able to examine athlete’s chromosomes, hormones, androgen receptors and the like, but they have not decided what any of that information means in a realm where athletes are classified as men or women.

In January of this year, a panel convened by the International Olympics Committee recommended that gender ambiguity be treated as a medical issue, and that athletes with “sexual disorder,” presumably including any body that cannot be easily classified, receive treatment. (Coverage in the New York Times)

All this talk of disorder puts me in mind of Judith Butler as well as Mary Douglas, who wrote in her 1966 volume Purity and Danger:

It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.

It seems that sports officials, like many people in the world, are unprepared to deal with the problematic nature of normative gender binaries. Bodies that cannot be easily classified result in crisis.

Tavia Nyong’o examines various issues of gender normativity, colonial histories, and competing paternalisms raised in this case. Please do read the article, “The unforgivable transgression of being Caster Semenya.

Sumo scandal

Japanese public television broadcaster NHK has announced that it will not air live coverage of the Grand Sumo tournament beginning in Nagoya this Sunday.
Coverage in the Japan Times

The Japan Sumo Association (日本相撲協会) has been beset by two recent scandals over ties to organized crime. Dozens of yakuza gangsters were given valuable ring-side seats at the May tournament in Tokyo. Following the tournament a stable master and a coach were reprimanded by the Sumo Association for providing tickets to the gangsters.
Coverage on Asahi Shinbun’s English-language web site

More recently, Kotomitsuki, an ozeki, or athlete of the second-highest rank, was suspended after several tabloids reported that he has gambled on professional baseball. Since then, several other athletes have also been suspended for ties to gambling and organized crime.
Coverage in Mainichi Daily News
[UPDATE – Contacts in Japan inform me that Kotomitsuki has been dismissed from sumo. Since athlete’s names are the property of the sumo association, he is now referred to as “the former Kotomitsuki” (元琴光喜).]

There was talk of canceling the Nagoya tournament in the wake of these scandals. When the Sumo Association decided to go ahead with the event, NHK, the only broadcaster that features live coverage of Japan’s six annual sumo tournaments, decided not to cover the event. This is the first time since 1953 that the national broadcaster will not cover what is sometimes called the national sport (国技).

The New York Times provides an overview of these scandals and other problems in the sumo world.

(Those wishing for more linguistic content may want to check out Tessa Carroll’s analysis of NHK’s influence on defining and disseminating Standard Japanese in her book Language Planning and Language Change in Japan. Personally, I’ m going to check out Marvin Opler’s 1945 “A ‘Sumo’ Tournament at Tule Lake Center” in American Anthropologist.)

World Cup woo woo

Finally, what would a sports wrap up be without talk about the World Cup? The vuvuzela, the plastic trumpets beloved by South African soccer fans and despised by some broadcasters and others outside South Africa, provides a linguistic hook.

The etymology of the word vuvuzela appears to be a mystery. Wikipedia asserts, boldly but vaguely, that the word “was first used in South Africa from the Zulu language or Nguni dialect meaning to make a vuvu sound.”[1] BBC News also suggests Zulu onomatopoeia as a possible source, but notes that no one is certain of the word’s origin. They suggest two possible “township slang” sources: words for shower or for pump it up. largely agrees with (or may be a source for) BBC News, adding that the word may come from a Zulu word meaning make noise.

[1] It’s not clear what Wikipedia authors intend by Nguni dialect. Ethnologue classifies Zulu as one of four languages in the “Nguni (S.40)” group of the Narrow Bantu branch of Niger-Congo languages.
[See Steven Black’s comment below for a description of Nguni languages.]

2 thoughts on “Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #9”

  1. Great column Chad, and thanks so much for the very useful tutorial on South African language politics, Steven!

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