Saturday 6 April 2013

Shibboleths & Co.

The word shibboleth originally designates a specific pronunciation of itself. Failure to pronounce the word in one native way, namely, substituting an ‘s’ sound [s] for a ‘sh’ sound [ʃ], entitled [ʃ]-natives to hack [s]-natives to pieces. It could have been the other way around, of course, given our propensity to nurture murderous feelings towards whoever speaks differently. It all depends on who is wielding the righteous axe at any given place and time.

Many of us have come to believe that making mincemeat (literally) of differently-accented people isn’t really an acquired right, so we’ve come up with civilised ways of obliterating such people instead. We can bully them in school, for example, or refuse them jobs, or force them to lose academic visibility, or just poke fun at them. We can also talk about them as belonging to ghettos, which is a bad thing to belong to, for those of us who belong to good ones.

Likewise, shibboleths can be good or bad. It all depends on who is wielding the righteous standard at any given place and time. When you enrol in language courses, you’re destined (I was going to say “doomed”) to learn what your textbooks deem to be good shibboleths. Whether you like them or not, whether you need them or not, for the purposes which made you enrol in those courses in the first place.

Sometime into your language learning, you are likely to be told that you speak your new language “with an accent”, and should therefore strive to get rid of it, on the (extremely entertaining) assumption that speaking a language well means speaking it without an accent. The claim that a good accent means no accent probably stems from the widespread practice of teaching languages through printed media. Printed languages have no accent, so it’s up to whoever happens to be reading them to provide them with one. Just look (yes, “look”) at the different accents which have been attributed to Latin, for example. This also means that whoever is in charge of teaching you a language can always claim that whatever accent you have in it doesn’t match the “good” one intended by the textbook writers, because they’re native speakers and you aren’t, and native speakers can’t be challenged on matters of “good” language usage. That argument usually cows learners into accent submission.

Good” and “bad” accents, however, are not simply a matter of native vs. non-native pronunciation practices. As with the original shibboleth incidents, native speakers are more than willing to chop figurative heads (and so offending vocal tracts) off one another as well. I’ve blogged about this before, but Richard Cauldwell, in an article titled ‘Lord Rant: A personal journey through prejudice, accent and identity’ puts it much better than I ever could.

Our accents reflect the ways in which we’ve trained our vocal tracts to produce speech. They match not just what we hear around us but also, and importantly, the ways in which we want to be heard. Until around age 3, we’re not aware that we’re acquiring accents in our languages (or the languages themselves), because we’re not aware of ourselves as independent from our surroundings. From then on, we start being able to pick and choose, be it our friends, our clothes, or our dialects, complete with accent, all of which will become part of who we are. We acquire and lose accents for the same reasons that we acquire and lose languages, and we do this at any age. Just listen to one-time fellow-speakers of your dialect(s) who, as adults, moved to different countries, or different regions of the same country.

Being able to adapt to the surroundings of our choice is a condition of survival. That’s why we, as a species, have been able to inhabit (I was going to say “infest”) every nook and cranny of the world that we are able to perceive. We will adapt, including our accents, if we so wish. Not all of us need or want to learn a new language in order to impersonate some of its other speakers. Learners may want to distance themselves from specific accents of their new languages because, well, learners aren’t free from prejudice either. Perhaps learners will want to acquire the shibboleths which identify them as borrowers of a language, rather than the shibboleths associated with specific lenders of that language. This includes prosodic shibboleths, more on which next time.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Rhythm and clues. Saturday 20th April 2013.

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