The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

On a bright summer morning in Moscow in the mid-1970s, I found myself wandering about the diplomatic enclave in an aimless fashion. I was stopped by an American girl cradling a black cat. She had been eyeing me for a while.

"Do you speak English?" she said.

"Yes", I said.

"This is Midnight", she said, showing me her cat. I didn't particularly like cats, so I ignored this.

"My name is Elizabeth", she added.

It turned out her father worked at the US Embassy and the family had just moved to an apartment down the corridor from mine. We stood around wondering what to say next.

I was not too keen on talking to a mere girl for longer than I had to, so I asked her if she had a brother. She said she did. I asked what his name was. She said something that sounded like "Which?"

I said, "What is your brother's name?"

"Which, er", she said again.

"Your brother", I said, trying differently. "What is his name?"

Her expression was unchanged. Our to-and-fro went on for a few more seconds until the penny dropped.

"Your brother's name is Whichard?" I said. A brief flicker of relief flashed over her face and she nodded.

I had been speaking English for several years at that point, but had not been consciously exposed to the American accent. My own accent was kind of Indian, but because English was not then my first language (I was possibly more fluent at Spanish and Malayalam) and because I hadn't practised it much, I found it slightly difficult to understand Elizabeth. It appeared as though my accent was clearer to hers than hers was to me, although - in typical Indian fashion - I tended to mangle several consonant sounds.

For instance, I didn't differentiate between 'V' and 'W'. Susan, the older and snobby sister of a Jamaican pal of mine, David, corrected my pronunciation several times when she heard me call him Day-Wid. Initially I couldn't really hear (or care about) the difference, but - maybe a year later - after increased familiarity with the Clares and using English on a day-to-day basis with them, the penny dropped once again. So much so that, in 1980, back in India, I began to correct an Indian classmate named David, who used to say Day-Wid as I once did.

Accents are yet another factor dividing people. It is easy to mock a person who speaks your language differently. That British TV series Mind Your Language is an example. As long as the teasing is restricted to fun and humour, it might be condoned even though it is fairly tasteless (and in these politically correct times possibly becoming illegal, too). But there have been occasions in history where the wrong accent could have resulted in death.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a taxi-driver in Amsterdam about Scheveningen, a little Dutch village whose name became a password that differentiated the Dutch from the invading Germans in the Second World War. The idea had been that disguised blond and blue-eyed Germans - otherwise indistinguishable from the equally blond and blue-eyed Hollanders - could be outed by the Dutch resistance if they couldn't pronounce the name correctly. In Dutch, a famously guttural language, the word is pronounced s-hawking-noise-evenin-hhh-en, the hawking noise being particularly difficult to mimic. The poor Germans must have been in terror of this challenge. (For my part, after listening to several repeated attempts on my part, the taxi-driver finally pronounced himself satisfied. "You can pass for a Dutchman now", he smirked.)

Such linguistic passwords are called shibboleths, and the earliest examples date from the pre-Christian period in Palestine.
4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, art thou an Ephraimite? If he say Nay;
6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.1
Another example from the European wars was the British belief that Germans couldn't correctly pronounce 'W', so they would issue challenges such as War Weapons Week (countersign Welmouth).

As an aside, keeping in view my own nom-de-plume: in Tolkien's universe, linguistic drift in the language Quenya among the High Elves changed the sound 'th' to 's'. Fëanor was outraged, because it meant that his mother's name Þerindë would now be pronounced Serinde2. And it is beholden on every Elf to love his mother and preserve her name in all its beauty.

1. Book of Judges, Chapter 12, verses 1-15. The Bible. Or see here.
2. J.R.R Tolkien, The Shibboleth of Fëanor.


Anonymous said...

JOST A MON, just curious. Have you contributed to the wikipedia?
They are reference freaks. So you will fit there very well!

Fëanor said...

@labsji: I have made two or three very minor amendments in Wikipedia. No contributions, though. As for references, I think it's important to distinguish one's own words from those of other people. So I italicise when I quote or I blockquote and then put in a superscript to the source of the quote. I like superscripts, heh.

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