A long history of letting our language divide us

Hebrew scriptures. Judges 12.

Ephraim is getting the worst of the battle, and they decide to head for home. On their retreat, they come to the fords of the Jordan River. To get home, they must get to the other side, but since there are no bridges, they must go to a good crossing spot.

The order has been given to all the Gileadites to slay any Ephraimite on the spot. Naturally, they go to the crossing places of the river to nab them. Their problem is that they don’t know how to tell the difference between a man from Ephraim and one of their own — they all look the same.

The problem is distinguishing friend from foe. It wasn’t enough to say, in the common parlance of the sentry, “Who goes there?”

It was then that the Gileadites remembered that the men of Ephraim had a peculiar accent of their own, pronouncing some words differently from any of the other tribes. The word “shibboleth” was the term that meant either “river” or “grain”. So when a man from Ephraim, fleeing for his life, was apprehended by a man from Gilead he would be asked: “Friend or foe?” Naturally he would respond that he was a “friend”.

Then came the big test. Those who have endured the study of Hebrew know that one of the more delicate aspects of Semitic languages are the sibilants. The fact is that the Ephraimites simply couldn’t pronounce “shibboleth” because their dialect did not include the “sh” sound. No matter how hard a poor soldier tried, no matter how he twisted his tongue, the best they were able to manage was “sibboleth”, and they were killed on the spot.

According to the text, 42,000 soldiers came to the ford, 42,000 thousand said “sibboleth”, and 42,000 were killed.

It’s an interesting, if obscure, biblical story. However, it gets more interesting when we remember that the word “shibboleth” has found its way into the English language. The dictionary defines it as “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.” Another rendering is “an arbitrary test to prove membership in a group.” A modern shibboleth can be a word, an idea or an opinion that clearly indicates to which groups you belong, and to which groups you don’t.

The world today is full of shibboleths. We commonly “test” each other according to buzzwords, slogans and sound bites. It’s convenient, really. Instead of genuinely listening to another, through a little ideological shorthand we can categorize, stereotype and catalog everyone we meet.

Someone has wisely said: “The problem with some people is that they understand everything too soon.” That’s the problem with shibboleths; they lead to stereotypical ways of relating with each other. They keep us from listening further, from learning, from understanding.

This July, as we celebrate the birthday of our nation, I am concerned that our political discourse is not what it should be. We are too often divided into ideological camps, like the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. We speak too much, and seldom listen.

Let me suggest that this year we try letting go of the shibboleths, take in the fireworks, and feel grateful that we live in a free country.


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