As the popularity of the recent New York Times dialect quiz reminds us, we're fascinated by what our speech says about who we are. But what happens when telling "us" from "them" becomes a dangerous pursuit?by Darran Anderson / February 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ from his 1975 collection North, Seamus Heaney encapsulated the dangers in Northern Irish speech during the Troubles. This was a “land of password, handgrip, wink and nod”; a place where language could be read for clues as to the religious background and political persuasion. Accents, pronunciations and differences in word usage were shibboleths that could give identity away. If a person said Derry rather than Londonderry, for example, they were likely a Catholic Nationalist or Republican as opposed to a Protestant Unionist or Loyalist. The same went for pronouncing ‘H’ or ‘Aitch’. In a country where being in the wrong place at the wrong time proved perilous, such linguistic clues could, and did, prove fatal.
Recently, a New York Times dialect quiz covering the UK and Ireland went viral on social media. Type in your preferred word for grandmother or playing truant, or your pronunciation of “scone,” and it would tell you—with varying degrees of accuracy—where on these islands you’d lived. This patchwork of dialects is light-hearted but fascinating, even if the individual recounting of results, like dreams, is more fascinating to the teller than the told.
It shows, for instance, how an individual’s language alters as they move around, leaving a trail on the map. Often the person is unaware of having picked up linguistic traits in a new home until they return to where they grew up and are judged accordingly. Dig deeper into dialects and there lies a multifaceted subject of migration and isolation, trades and demographics, class and faith. There is, in effect, history and sociology not just in how words are formed on paper but also on the tongue.
While projects like the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets focus on languages facing the risk of extinction, dialects appear robust and are celebrated as signs of diversity. Yet several decades ago, Received Pronunciation was a pre-requisite not just in the media but in many professions. In the 1990s, at the same school that Heaney studied at, we undertook speech lessons to encourage confidence in public speaking but also to minimise traces of vernacular accent in order to improve our chances of future employment “across the water.” Comprehension was given as the excuse for homogenisation, with RP being treated as the default rather than a dialect in itself. Thankfully, regional dialects continued to flourish, evolve, and eventually have seeped into the mainstream—mainly through the insistence of those who wish to be heard on their own terms.
As frivolous as the dialect quiz is, the dark side of language also came to mind. By showing us how dialects are connected to geographical location, the quiz reminds us how territorial language can be. The sense of inclusion we have through our words only exists because others are excluded from it. Most of the time, this is harmless, but such differences can and have been weaponised. For those in divided and conflict-ridden countries in conflict, language becomes as much about deflection, concealment, and subtle gestures, even passwords, of identity as direct expression. In certain cases, the word a person utters can be a matter of life and death.
Shibboleths are a linguistic crossroads; words which reveal a person’s identity, often against their will; words that instantly establish whether the speaker is “us” or “them.” The word itself was a shibboleth. In the Old Testament, the fate of thousands of Ephraimites depended on whether or not they pronounced the ‘h’ in the agricultural word shibbolet. Across cultures and down the centuries, the language tests have had bloody repercussions. Woken from their sleep, French soldiers off-duty in Bruges were run through or let go depending on how they said the words “schild en vriend” (“shield and friend”). Russians were identified, during the Soviet Union’s conflicts with Finland, by their inability to roll syllables in the word “höyryjyrä”(“steamroller”), while Tamil civilians, identified by similar subtetlies of language, were burned alive during the Black July pogrom. causing the eruption of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Perhaps the most notorious case of shibboleths was when the US-backed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo had tens of thousands of Haitians murdered, singling them out depending on how they pronounced “perejil,” the Spanish for “parsley.”
Language may well facilitate exposure and subjugation, but it can also aid protection. Those pushed to the margins of society can develop ways of speaking to keep secrets, enshrine a sense of community, and outwit those in authority. This occurs again and again in the criminal underworld (the traditional “thieves’ cant” of Britain), in prisons (Grypsera in Poland for instance), and amongst young people (from the myriad of internet languages to the codes of gangs) but it also develops in marginalised groups of people, such as the Shelta tongue of Irish travellers.
When homosexuality was outlawed in Britain, Polari thrived as an ingenious form of expression and subterfuge. In South Africa, Gayle and IsiNgqumo still exist as parlances for gay people, while transgender Hijras in India speak Hijra Farsi. In the Philippines, there is Swardspeak. Everywhere that expression is constrained, language will be altered accordingly, in quiet defiance.
For all the tribalism and dominance of one group over another, it’s worth noting that shibboleths are very often focused on obscure words—like parsley and steamroller—showing us that people have vastly more that unites them than divides. And in attempting to silence expression and push identities underground or to the margins, the various powers-that-be only encourage inventive expansions of language. “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” Foucault noted, and this resistance, different but not separate in dialect, can be articulated not just in violence but in cyphers, songs, poetry and new ways of saying ancient things like “We are here too.”