Is Martial Arts Language?

Idiolect. id·i·o·lect /ˈidēəˌlekt/
noun The speech habits peculiar to a particular person.

Is Martial Arts Language? There are many parallels between language and martial arts. We can almost call martial arts styles languages themselves. But not quite. The idea is still fun to play with.

Some vocabulary:

Technique = word. While words aren’t the smallest part of language (those would be letters, or sounds) they do correspond with the smallest concrete parts of martial arts, the single technique. In that way a bow = hello and forward punch = hello but with much more emphasis.

Technique combo (kihon) = sentence. Combining words allows you to say something in much the same way as a technique combo allows you to resolve an encounter.

Form (kata) = story. Combining sentences allows you to communicate an idea or form a tale or recount an event while combining kihon represents a whole scenario of one combatant facing off against one or many more adversaries.

Style = dialect. The collection of words and phrases that make up, for example, Latin American Spanish would be analogous to the forms and techniques that are the syllabus of, for example, Shoto-Kan.

Martial art = language. In the way that Aikido is a martial art and German is a language. This is the biggest subset that can still usefully differentiate both ideas we’re working with here. Any higher level would lose the thread.

With these in place we can really get a sense of where this can go. Different regions in the world speak different languages – and teach different martial arts. Geographically close regions sometimes speak similar languages and/or borrow words from each other – so too do their martial arts appear similar and throw certain kicks (for example) in the same way. Some folks are dissatisfied with the language they have learned and seek to create a new, more unified, more universal language that they firmly believe everyone should speak (like Esperanto) – just like certain folks in Brazil began espousing a combat system that combined grappling, wrestling and striking into a cohesive unit (like Brazilian Jiu-jitsu). New languages and new combat systems come up regularly, with mixed success in adoption.

A beginner martial artist will run a lot of basic drills: high block, forward punch; just like a baby learning to say papa and mama. Then as the vocabulary increases you can start to have a conversation, a sparring match can only occur after developing enough strikes, blocks and footwork.

An experienced martial artist will have learned a specific art, such as Karate. They speak English. They will have a style, such as Shoto-kan. They speak with a regional accent, American South. They will have school-specific quirks, such as might be picked up at that one dojo KSKD. They use slang, in-jokes and memes that only people in their social circle understand. And above all else, they will have a specific way they move that no one can perfectly imitate due to the way their body is built, such as throwing the side-kick just so due to an old knee injury or favoring the left-hand hook punch to the temple because they saw that one movie where it was shown to be a sure-fire knock-out when they were 7 years old and it just stuck. When you see them move through a form, even with a motorcycle helmet on, you can recognize them for who they are. That same person speaks with a certain cadence, pronounce (and mis-pronounce) their words in a particular way, have the occasional stutter… in short, they have an idiolect.  We can recognize a person by their speech without having to see them.

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