Monday, October 11, 2010
Sea of Shibboleths
A Shibboleth is an ancient concept extending back to Biblical times, from the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת meaning "grain-bearing plant" (such as wheat or corn). Members of the tribe of Gilead found that enemy members of the tribe of Ephraim invariably mispronounced this word, and so used it as a code word to detect spies.
Today, shibboleths occur in everyday talk and in political speeches via Cant Language, using words and phrases that help to subtly and silently distinguish members of any given group from non-members. Politicians such as George W. Bush II have peppered their language with keywords and phrases that act as a signal to certain extreme right-wing Christian organizations, who say "hey, this guy's one of us!" when they hear them. The phrases are usually innocuous enough that they pass unnoticed, even through the major media scrutiny that a politician's speech receives.
One of my favorite films, Inglourious Basterds, is all about the nuances of language and codes and customs and shibboleths - even its very name is a shibboleth. Tarantino, a devout film buff, liberally loaded his movie with film history references, some obvious, some abstract. And throughout the film, we see the characters scrutinize each other in terms of language, of accent, and of certain social cues:
* The Jewish family's inability to speak English seals their doom as they hide under the floorboards of the French farmer's house, unaware that Landa is openly discussing their demise. And by pulling out a Sherlock Holmes pipe and puffing on it as he prepares to reveal that he has known all along that the farmer is hiding the family, Landa is practically telegraphing this to the farmer - but it only makes sense after it's too late.
* British agent Lt. Hicox gives himself away as a spy first by his German accent (which, good as it may be, cannot fool an authentic German) and then by being unaware of the cultural custom of holding two fingers and a thumb up to signal the number three (rather than the more common method of simply using the main three fingers).
* At the Nazi film event, Landa can instantly detect the Basterds are spies by their poor Italian accents.
* And at the restaurant alone with Shosanna, Landa drops some shibboleth-hints to suggest he secretly knows who she really is, by making overt references to milk and cream as he grills her about her made-up identity.
I tend to speak in shibboleths anyway, through no conscious effort or conspiratorial agenda of my own. I often weave pop-culture references into things I say (but in a dry and ironic way, and not necessarily endorsing the sources of those references.) Example: speaking to a group of children at an art education event a few years back, I pronounced the word "authority" as "autho-ri-tahhh", a la South Park's Cartman. The kids immediately burst into laughter en masse, while the reference was lost on all the adults in the room, who looked around confusedly, wondering what had just happened.
I love those kind of moments, and that's why I sprinkle shibboleths around for my own amusement, and to enjoy bisecting a conversation into multiple invisible levels, each of which may have a different effect on a different listener. Sometimes my associate J.T. Dockery and I will have conversations that consist solely of quotes from old songs and movies that we both adore, which can be quite puzzling to an outsider.