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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Language change and HEMA

"Languages change, usually very slowly, sometimes very rapidly. . . . The slower mechanisms of change seem to include the 'battle' between simplicity and expressiveness. We want our languages to communicate as much information as possible, and yet do so economically. We want our languages rich yet concise. How many prepositions or cases do we need? How many are too much? How many verb forms do we need, and how many strain the brain? How many suffixes, prefixes, and irregularities can children take before they begin to simplify? What combinations of sounds are easily pronounced and easily understood? And so on."

(from the article "Language change and evolution").

Given the factors that drive language changes, I wonder whether the commonly accepted term "Historical European Martial Arts" will go the way of Sambo, that is, whether the acronym "HEMA" will morph into the actual English word for these arts ("Hema")?

Sambo is a Russian martial art developed for the Soviet Red Army in the early 20th century. The word "Sambo" is an Anglicization of "Самбо", which is in turn an acronym for the Russian САМозащита Без Оружия (SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya), meaning "self-defense without weapons." However, less than a century after its creation, Samozashchita Bez Oruzhiya is known simply as "Sambo" (and its practitioners "Sambists"). Why? Because Sambo is much easier to say than the full, descriptive term. It has become the word for that art.

Likewise, it's a hell of a lot easier to say "I study Hema" than it is to say "I study Historical European Martial Arts." In fact, I often wonder whether trying to explain exactly what we do (instead of simply naming it something succinct and sexy like "Hema") gives laymen the impression it isn't a "real, " established martial art.

Reciprocally, there is no historical precedent for the term "Hema" and its usage in this way would suggest that all of the European arts were more or less homogeneous (which many Fiore or Lichtenauer purists would argue against). Is this a change that the HEMA community should help to usher in, or should we sit back and let etymological evolution run its course? Definitely something to think about.

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