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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

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Password for life

My aunt, who is a big fan of Indian stuff, often wears saree in Indian style, applies a pottu and owns a great collection of Indian style jewellery. As everyone did, she went for work on the day when the Black July incidents started. Her office allowed all the workers to leave early so she had stepped out of the office and started walking home as no transport was available. Suddenly a group of men has surrounded her thinking that she is a Tamil and has tried to rob her jewellery and possibly kill her. She has spoken in Sinhalese but they have still had doubts and one of the men has asked her to pronounce 'Baaldiya' (bucket). She has not only pronounced it correctly, but a set of 'pure' Sinhalese words for the looters' further information.

A Shibboleth is a linguistic "dead giveaway" that can distinguish a member of one group from a person who isn't. A shibboleth is, more or less, a linguistic password used to identify a cultural group. Okay, by their language, Tamils have not got the practice of making 'voiced' sounds such as 'b', 'g' as the first sound of a word.

The word shibboleth originates from a story of the Hebrew Bible. The Gileadites, having successfully occupied the land of Ephraim, were able to prevent the refugee Ephraimites from returning to the territory by asking them to "say Shibboleth".

The Ephraimites dialect lacked the sh sound; the Gileadites did not. According to the story, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed using this test.

This seems ridiculous, yet modern history has witnessed a similar atrocity. Over five days in October 1937, the Parsley Massacre saw up to 35,000 Haitians killed in the Dominican Republic.

During the massacre, Dominican soldiers could identify Haitians by holding a sprig of parsley and asking them to speak its name. A Haitian would be unable to pronounce the trilled 'r' in the Spanish for parsley (perejil), and would be slaughtered.

Apparently, the phrase "War Weapons Week" (followed by "Welmouth") was used by British forces to distinguish Germans, who generally have trouble with the English "W", often turning it into a V sound ("var veapons veek").

However, it is very important to remember that the vocal apparatus of a Tamil speaker is no different than that of a Sinhalese speaker. Human vocal tracts do not vary across ethnic and social groups. The only reason most Tamils cannot pronounce some sounds is because they have not been raised or trained to do so.

This is the same reason that English speakers have a heck of a time with the Spanish trilled (or "rolled") R.

The basic lesson to learn here is that given enough time, dedication and training, a speaker of any language can learn to produce pretty much any sound.

Anybody can learn any sound, if they truly care to, so a shibboleth based on pronunciation is only as strong as the dedication of the person you are testing.

It is also worth noting that bilingual or multilingual speakers (who have spoken or been exposed to several languages since birth) can have good (if not perfect) pronunciation of more than one language and dialect.

So, it is quite possible to have a false-positive, somebody who can say the Shibboleth without trouble, yet is still from outside the desired group.

Also, I suppose it is perfectly possible to have a person who is in the desired group, but has some sort of speech impediment or linguistic background which would prevent them from making the proper pronunciation.

Beware, your language can kill you.

 

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