Thursday, March 2
Friday, March 2, 2012
My life a series of shibboleths
In contemporary usage, a shibboleth refers to any “in-crowd” word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders. Every time I open my mouth here, I speak shibboleths, giving away my status as an outsider. I speak Italian with an American accent, and though I try to speak pure Italian, I’ve been told an accent is unavoidable for someone of my age learning a new language. I am reading through the Old Testament, and I come across the original account of the word “shibboleth,” an example where speaking without an accent can be a life or death situation.
The Ephraimites were at war with the Gileadites, and the Ephraimites had been routed and fled. When the fugitive warriors tried to get back across the Jordan River to their homeland, the Gileadites, who controlled the fords, used a language test to determine where the men were from. First, they would ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If a man said, “No,” then they would say, “Say now ‘Shibboleth.’ ” The Ephraimites couldn’t say this without an accent; it came out as “Sibboleth.” This was serious warfare, and those who couldn’t say it right were put to death. I guess I should accept my lot in life and be happy that the worst I will suffer for my shibboleths is a little embarrassment.