Touching Tongues: Shibboleth Schmibboleth


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This is the final installment of Mr. White’s column, “Touching Tongues.” Feel free to catch up with his previous work here. 


When they hear the term Aryan, most people think of blond, blue-eyed Nazis and their pasty-pated skinhead admirers, and of course these are the folks who have made it a household word. So it may come as a surprise that the Nazis got the word from two groups of people who lived over 3000 years ago and a hell of a long way from Northern Europe. One group lived in Iran; these were the people who invented Zoroastrianism, which is my all-time favorite name for a religion; the other group lived in India and wrote the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture. It obviously took a long chain of defective logic to turn these ancient Asians into a Nordic master race.

Actually, it took bad reasoning to turn them into a race at all, for Arya was originally a religious and linguistic designation, not a racial one. If you spoke the correct language and performed the correct rituals, you were Arya. To be sure, they disagreed about which language made you an Aryan (Avestan or Sanskrit), and the gods of one group were considered demons by the other, but the principle was the same.

It was in the late 1700s that scholars first realized these ancient languages belonged to the same family as Latin, Greek, and most modern European languages, including English and German. This language family was sometimes called Aryan in honor of its Eastern branch, and the racialist mind-set of the 19th century transformed this into an Aryan “race,” sweeping out of Europe and conquering everybody with its will to power. The race was fictional, but the language group is real: they’re called the Indo-European languages nowadays, and even if you don’t know a bunch of foreign languages, you can see the range of Indo-European in the histories of familiar words. Here’s one example: the word yoke has the same meaning its ancestor had 5000 years ago, a device for joining a team of pulling animals. The same root, with its more general meaning of joining together, is found in yoga (from Sanskrit) and if you’re old enough to remember the Soviet Union, you probably recall the Soyuz space program (it’s Russian for ‘union’). People who join in marriage hope for conjugal bliss, while power-hungry generals hope to form a junta (all from Latin, through French and Spanish). All of us Indo-Europeans, from Mumbai to Moscow to Cuzco, have a heritage in common, but it clearly has nothing to do with race.

Defining your identity by language seems like a step up from defining it by physical appearance, (disguised as “race”), but it has its own baggage, as you can see from the origin of the word barbarian. To the Greeks, any language other than Greek appeared to be gibberish; people sounded like they were just saying “bar-bar-bar” all the time, so the Greeks called them barbaroi, foreigners, that is, barbarians.

The word shibboleth shows an even uglier side of what happens when you define group identity through differences in language, the differences in this case being very minor. In Judges, one of the Biblical books with lots of smiting, the Gileadites were fighting the Ephraimites because the Ephraimites had failed to join a coalition against some third group of –ites. The Gileadites were kicking ass, so thousands of Ephraimites tried to cross back over the river Jordan to go home and lick their wounds. The Gileadites posted guards at the bridges, and anyone who tried to pass had to say the word shibboleth, which was just an ordinary Hebrew word that meant ‘stalk’ (part of a plant, not what your psycho ex-boyfriend does). The Ephraimite dialect lacked the sh sound, so they would say sibboleth and the guards would kill them and dump their bodies on the growing pile.

The meaning of the word shibboleth now extends to non-fatal markers of identity, but there is at least one recent instance where it had its full horrifying force. In 1937 the Dominican dictator Trujillo decided to exterminate thousands of Haitian laborers who were living and working on the Dominican side of the border. He ordered his soldiers to identify the victims by showing them a sprig of parsley and demanding that they name it. The Spanish word for parsley, perejil, contains two sounds absent in the Haitian Creole word, pesi, and both the Spanish r and j must have been difficult to say. As in the Biblical story, many people were murdered while trying to cross a river to escape; in this case it was the Massacre River, so called after an earlier massacre. That’s the way history has gone for Haitians.

We Americans seem to be getting more and more enthusiastic about excluding people based on race and religion, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that language has joined the fun. Just the other day I heard a voter being interviewed on NPR, lamenting that we have no official language (something I’ve always been rather proud of). He wanted to make English the official language so that he could “have a conversation.” And the place where he was having trouble finding English speakers? New Hampshire. Perhaps the state of New Hampshire has been overrun recently by Ephraimites. Or perhaps this dude is just full of sit.


Roy White studied several languages, dead and otherwise, at the University of Minnesota.  He lives in Saint Paul with his lovely wife and handsome dog, and his work has appeared recently in Leveler Poetry Journal and Wordgathering.


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