Tuesday, July 22, 2008


We all do it. We all listen to someone else speak and try to pin down the person's background by the way they talk. The vocabulary and tone of one's speech can reveal their home region, their economic class, and even sometimes race.

The use of language as a tool to identify one's background is as old as the story of Shibboleth. In the Bible, two tribes of Israelites fought a war. Gileadites defeated the tribe of Ephraim. The Ephraimites tried to retreat back to their homeland and were stopped at the border. However, the Ephraimites tried to blend into the refugees. The Gileadites decided they would use language to catch the Ephraimites. A test composed of saying the word "Shibboleth" was made. Since the Ephraimites native dialect did not have the "sh" sound, they were easily discovered and killed (the people in the Old Testament did not have the Geneva Conventions).
  • Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, 'Let me cross,' the men of Gilead would ask, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'No,' they then said, 'Very well, say Shibboleth.' If anyone said, 'Sibboleth', because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion. Judges 12:5-6 (New Jerusalem Bible)
Shibboleths today range from jokes, local phrases, to popular culture terms. Plenty of tests and mapping has been done on how the use of language in today's word can pin someone's home region.

Shibboleths are more than just innocent words that allow one to try to guess where someone lives. Some business travellers learn Shibboleths so they can "drop" them into a conversation at the right time and appear as one "in the know" and trustworthy. Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan listen have interpreters who listen for language use from Arabs, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and other groups looking for outsiders. While it is illegal to discriminate based on national origin, surprisingly it is legal to discriminate in the work force based on how someone talks whether it be vulgar or the person merely uses his native dialect.

1 comment:

cchiovitti said...

Not only in person, but our "local flavor" to our speech also affects our online communications. A few months ago a new member of a large forum that I was on became very insulted when someone said of her home - "there must be something in the water" (since a great many new members had recently come from that area). She unfortunately took this to be a serious insult against the ocean she lived near.