Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shibboleths and Linguistic Persecution: Part 1

The vast majority of the time, language is used for communication. This is essential to everyday life and in most cases causes no harm (unless you're constantly lying and manipulating people with your words, in which case shame on you). However, we are sad to say that language can sometimes be used for evil.

So what's a shibboleth, you ask? It's a word or sound that a person may not pronounce correctly according to those familiar with it. Over the ages, various groups have used such words to identify "outsiders" that did not belong to their group. For example, if you couldn't place someone's English-based accent, you could ask them to pronounce the word Edinburgh. If they pronounced the silent 'g' then you'd know they're definitely not from Scotland! Shibboleths haven't always been used to help solve linguistic curiosities, however. They've been used by political groups to systematically identify people who are different, often so that they can be killed.

In Edinburgh, don't pronounce the 'g' if you want to blend in!

The term shibboleth comes from Hebrew, literally meaning either "the part of a plant containing the grains" or "stream, torrent". However, its usage as a linguistic term comes from its use in a story from the Book of Judges in the Bible. A group called the Ephraimites suffered a military defeat by the Gileadites. Soon after, the survivors began attempting to cross the Jordan River in order to reach safety at home. The Gileadites blocked their path and demanded that each man pronounce the word "shibboleth". If they could not pronounce it correctly and said "sibboleth" instead, they were killed. According to the story, forty-two thousand Ephraimites could not make the 'sh' sound.

The Jordan River, the site of a biblical massacre.

Sadly, there are quite a few examples of shibboleths being used as a linguistic test to decide whether or not someone is the enemy and therefore should be killed. Not only is it a terrible use of language, but it also makes you wonder how many people who weren't "outsiders" were killed just because they didn't use the normal pronunciation of their group. Here are a few of the most famous shibboleths used for linguistic persecution.

The Parsley Massacre

In October of 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of Haitians living along the Dominican-Haitian border. When Dominican soldiers encountered someone they suspected to be Haitian, they would hold up a spring of parsley and ask what it was. If they knew that the word was perejil in Spanish and pronounced it with a trilled 'r' then they were allowed to live. If they pronounced the 'r' as a uvular approximant as in Haitian Creole and French, they were executed. About 20,000 were killed.

Parsley, or perejil to Trujillo.

Latin American Wars of Independence

The name Francisco was used by Colombian rebels to tell Latin Americans apart from Spaniards. Anyone who pronounced the first 'c' with [θ] as in European Spanish was thrown into the Magdalena River to die.

The Great Kantō Earthquake 

On September 1, 1923 a ten-minute long earthquake shook the Japanese Kantō plain, killing over 100,000 people. The government declared martial law and rumors started that Koreans were taking advantage of the disaster by committing crimes, including poisoning wells. Many were unaware that cloudy well water can be a side effect of a large earthquake and believed the rumors. Vigilantes began setting up roadblocks and testing citizens with various shibboleths such as gagigugego. Japanese people people pronounced the initial 'g' as [g] and the others as [ŋ], while Koreans pronounced them as [k] and [g]. Those who failed the test were deported, beaten or killed. The Japanese Army tried to warn civilians against attacking Koreans with little success. There has never been a definitive death toll, but up to a thousand people are thought to have been killed, many of them Chinese, as well as Japanese speakers of regional dialects.

Destruction caused by the earthquake in Yokohama, Japan.

We'll have the stories of more shibboleths for you tomorrow in Part 2!