Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shibboleths---what are they and how to use them in writing

Jennifer Rova

If you write spy novels, fiction set during any war, or want your novel to reflect a certain group or area of the country, you may want to read the following about sibboleths. It could give your writing just the right touch of authenticity that appeals to readers. I found the various definitions quite confusing but I am mainly referring to a shibboleth as a pass word.  Today it is often used as a way to determine who is in the "in" group and who is "out" via the use of certain terms.* 

A shibboleth* for this post is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group. The group making the identification has some kind of social power to set the standards for who belongs to their group: who is "in" and who is "out." In my case, saying the shibboleth “Uff da mya” is from my Norwegian heritage. It can be used as an expression of surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, relief and sometimes dismay. “Uff da maya what a day I had!”

In New York, you stand “on line,” while everywhere else in the English-speaking world, people stand “in line.”
The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary. A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. This phenomenon is part of the universal use of language for distinguishing social groups. It is also one example of a general phenomenon of observing a superficial characteristic of members of a group, such as a way of speaking, and judging that characteristic as good or bad, depending on how much the observers like the people who have that characteristic. One common example is use of the “N” word by some African Americans which is acceptable within their certain social groups but totally unacceptable when used by anybody else.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet. The modern usage derives from an account in the Torah, was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked an SH sound from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme (any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another). The groups were fighting each other. If a soldier could not pronounce “shibboleth” correctly, it indicated he was the Ephraimite was slain immediately by the Gileadites.

In numerous cases of conflict between groups speaking different languages or dialects, one side used shibboleths in a way similar to the above-mentioned Biblical use, i.e., to discover hiding members of the opposing group. In October 1937 the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a password to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre although more recent scholarship and the lack of evidence mass graves puts the actual total as low as 1000.

OREGON  Many non-locals pronounce the last syllable, "gone."  Residents of the state pronounce it like the second syllable of "begun." Some also turn the middle syllable into a long e ("ORE-ee-gon") or drop the middle syllable altogether (making it sound like "organ" or "argon").

During World War II, some American soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word "lollapalooza" as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people frequently had difficulty pronouncing “L” saying an “R” instead. A watchword such as "lollapalooza" would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would open fire without waiting to hear anything else or ask to see any identification.

English-speaking Allied personnel in Europe, during the same war, made use of passwords
in which w-sounds were prominent, as the letter w is normally pronounced "v" by native speaking Germans. The challenge “War Weapons Week” and the countersign “Welmouth” often revealed an enemy. British forces are reported to have also used the word "squirrel", as Germans would frequently pronounce it sqvirrel. In the North African campaign, Allied forces used the password "Whoa Mahomet", which Germans could never pronounce. Following the D-Day (1944) invasion in Normandy, US forces used the challenge-response "Flash" – "Thunder" – "Welcome”. German  infiltrators in U.S. uniforms sometimes gave away their identity  during the Battle of The Bulge (1944–45) by using elements of British English vocabulary, such as "lorry" versus truck and "petrol" instead of gasoline thereby showing a lack of awareness of US vs. British shibboleths.

During the Somali Islamic terrorist group al-Shababb's 2013 hostage and terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya the attackers asked for Islamic prophet Muhammad's  mother Aminah hint Wahb's name and the shahada as religious shibboleths to determine Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims were freed, while non-Muslims were targeted. An Indian man who could not name Aminah was shot dead.

A good shibboleth is in the pronunciation of the word "been" which the English invariably make to rhyme with "green," and Americans say "ben".

Today, in American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any "in-group" word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is less well recognized in British English. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.
English shibboleths for native speakers of American English:
nuclear/nucular: The word "nuclear" is sometimes pronounced "nook-leer" in parts of the United States. This is considered incorrect or a metathesis by many authorities, although a common alternative pronunciation, is used by Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. Bush and other politicians. This is common in some Midwestern states, particularly those in the southern part of the region.

"BART": Bay Area Rapid Transit, which connects San Francisco with the East and South Bay, is pronounced without the article the by locals, but with it by outsiders. A local would say, "I am going to ride BART," whereas a visitor typically says, "Let's ride the BART."

Similarly, the names of local interstate highways in Minnesota are pronounced without the article "the" by locals. A local would drive on "494" not "the 494."

When referring to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the location of most of the city's major monuments, natives usually say that a given landmark is "on the mall." Tourists will sometimes say "in the mall."

Pronunciation of letters of the alphabet:
H: in Northern Ireland pronounced 'aitch' by Protestants, 'haitch' by Catholics, per Hiberno-English. Also often pronounced 'haitch' in dialects of English spoken in the ethnically non-Anglo-Saxon English colonies of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Z: pronounced zee in the United States; typically zed in the rest of the world. Known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Natives of this city usually pronounce the word 'water' ‘wuter.’A similar phenomenon is found in the closely related Baltimore (Balt-more) dialect.

Pasadena, California: Lower and middle-class natives usually pronounce the word 'milk' [mɛɫk] instead of [mɪɫk], in contrast to their neighbors in Los Angeles. However, this trait is shared with many speakers of American English to which the city has historical ties Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are named for their creator, Harry Reese. In broadcast advertisements the name of the company and the product—Reese's—is consistently pronounced "Reese-iz"—being the possessive form of "Reese." But in several areas of the U.S. it is common for the candy to be called "Ree-see Cups" or "Ree-seez Cups." (In addition to altering the pronunciation of Reese's, the phrase "peanut butter" is often omitted.) Similarly, "Reese's Pieces" might be pronounced "Ree-see Pee-sees," the rhyme being preserved by incorrectly altering the pronunciation of both words.

Americans trying to sound Canadian say for “about” "a boot"; Canadians actually pronounce the word sounding more like "a boat". This phenomenon is known in linguistics as Canadian raising and is not restricted to just Canada, as many Northern U.S. dialects have clear Canadian Raising as well. “Shedule” is pronounced “shed yule” by many Canadians. Americans regard eh as characteristic of Canadian English. Like Canadian raising, eh is used by some Canadian citizens. A usual greeting may be “How’s it goin’, eh?” “eh” is pronounced like a long “a” as is “ache.”

Smorgasboard, a Scandinavian word, is often said, “schmorgusbord” by some Americans in the Midwest. In Lousiana many people from that state will tell you is “Lose-ee-anna." Louiseville, KY is prounced without the “s” and Pierre, SD is definitely “Pier, SD” when voiced. Lima, ID is also Leema to those who live there. Of course, Illinois is pronounced “Ill-i-noy.”

To confuse us all, here are some other definitions I found for "shibboleth":
*SHIBBOLETH “an attention-getting word or phrase used to publicize something (as a campaign or product) <we knew that their claim of giving the best deal in town was just a shibboleth>
Related Words expression, idiom; catchword, cliché (also cliche); maxim, motto; battle cry
war cry

2. an idea or expression that has been used by many people <there's a lot of truth in the shibboleth that if you give some people an inch, they'll take a mile.

[Miriam Webster Dictionary, 2011.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Fascinating. Who put the 'r' in Warshington and who added the 't' to the end of across? I should stop now, lest I have you 'googling' all day.

Donna Hole said...

Wow, that was a fascinating journey. Never thought of dialects as "passwords" before. This is interesting about the German-English passwords due to an inability to correctly pronounce the words.

Thanks for introducing me to a new word, and word concept. I think I can use this in one of my short stories.


Jennifer Rova said...

Donna, you are welcome. It is always fun for me to find another who finds information to use in their writing. I like the research part of writing the best!

Elizabeth, you are right about googling...this kind of post leads to a lot of fun time spent goggling which leads us writers into many other trails we hadn't thought about when we started the day.