Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10: Sibboleth Day

On this date in the year 2000, the television show The West Wing won nine Emmys, including outstanding drama. In doing so, the show broke the record for most Emmys earned for a show in its first season -- the record was previously held by "ER" and "Hill Street Blues." The West Wing continued its successful run for six more seasons, ending in May 2006. In each of its seven seasons it received an Emmy nomination for outstanding drama, winning a total of four times.

One West Wing episode in particular is of special interest to language lovers. It was called "Shibboleth" and appeared in the show's second season.

In the episode President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) must determine whether a group of Chinese stowaways should be given asylum in the U.S. or be returned to China. One key to his decision is determining whether their claim to be Christians is true or just a ploy to stay in the U.S. When President Bartlett tells his staff that he will find out the truth by employing a shibboleth, everyone in the room is puzzled (1).

A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password, where a person's pronunciation or language usage indicates his or her background. It originates in a story from the Old Testament in the Book of Judges, Chapter 12. In the story two tribes, the Ephraimite and the Gileadites, are at war. The Gileadites use the word shibboleth (which means "ear of corn") as a password to tell friend from foe. In ancient Hebrew dialects some groups pronounced it with an 'sh' sound while others pronounced it with an 's.' Using the shibboleth, the Gileadites where able to identify and kill the Ephraimites, who did not have an 'sh' sound in their language.

President Barlett's use of a shibboleth is probably more cultural than linguistic. In his interrogation of the Chinese Christian representative, he asks questions about the group's religious practices and knowledge of the Bible. He comes to the realization that the Chinese are true Christians when they turn the tables on him, saying that faith, not knowledge, is the true test of the Christian faith: "Faith is the only Shibboleth."

Shibboleths used in these kind of life or death circumstances are rare today; however, pronunciation and word choice can be an especially telling marker of a person's background. The writers of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) attempt to document the varieties of American English in the different regions of the U.S. Because "standard" English is most common in written language, the bulk of regional differences are found in oral language.

The following are some of the regional terms recorded by DARE:

-While most people recognize poached eggs, dropped eggs is a regional term used for these eggs in New England.

-The game of hopscotch is sometimes referred to as Sky Blue in Chicago, Illinois.

-In the Gulf States and Texas, a chill or shiver is known as a rigor (3).

Today's Challenge: From Shibboleth to Shining
Shibboleth Visit the website for PBS's series Do You Speak American? and take their quiz on regional terms for food, health, and recreational terms used throughout the U.S. Are there any special regional words or expressions that characterize the people who live in your region of the country?

Word of the Day: opprobrium
This word, which originates from Latin, is a noun that means “disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct; ignominy.” Notice how H.L. Mencken uses it in context in the quote below.

Quote of the Day: In small things as in large [the American] exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into arresting parts of speech. Such a term as rubberneck is almost a complete treatise on American psychology; it reveals the national habit of mind more clearly than any labored inquiry could ever reveal it. It has in it precisely the boldness and contempt for ordered forms that are so characteristically American, and it has too the grotesque humor of the country, and the delight in devastating opprobriums, and the acute feeling for the succinct and savory. —H. L. Mencken

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