ARBITRIUM BRUTUM

“‘If I knew a single thing, I would have told you before.’ He mixed his subjunctives, perhaps, but the idea was clear enough.” — Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away1

If you look up shibboleth in a dictionary, you’ll often find “ear of corn” cited as the ancient definition of the Hebrew shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת‎). 

Hmmm. 

Until 16th century Spanish explorers brought it home from the New World, no corn was cultivated or even heard of in the Old one. But I’m splitting hairs. The mistake, the anachronism, is perfectly understandable: in its ancient sense the term referred to the part of a plant containing its grain, its seeds. Seedpod, in other words.2

These days what we mean by shibboleth — token of self-proclaimed specialness, social password, badge of identity — comes from its historical, some would say biblical, significance as a test-word, a forensic or interrogative device, rather than from its basic meaning in everyday speech of that time. Three thousand years ago, as recorded in the Book of Judges, 12:7, the Gileadites, having routed invading Ephraimites, exposed surviving fugitives by tricking them into saying it. If a suspicious person, caught trying to re-cross the River Jordan to safety, pronounced its initial consonant like the s in suck — the voiceless alveolar sibilant of his own local dialect — as against the “correct” digraphic sh, as in shit, this was taken for proof of foreignness. The suspect had effectively ratted himself out.

More recently and in similar circumstances, special words have been used as tests of nativeness. During Nazi occupation, Danish resistance fighters were said to sneak a phrase meaning red poridge with cream [rød grød med fløde] into conversations with suspected German-born spies. This phrase is indeed quite difficult for non-natives to pronounce convincingly, having otherwise mastered idiomatic Danish. Whether actual Nazi infiltrators were thus unmasked remains a point of lively debate. (And am I alone in wondering how one might, skulking in an archway, beneath a bare light bulb swinging through midnight fog, have struck up such a conversation?)

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Rød grød med fløde

•••

Presently, we use shibboleth to denote any phrase or behavior that a group (tribe, clique, cabal, really any threatened subculture) claims as proof of belonging. What it will not be is some unusual or totemic slogan, a secret oath, an intonation wildly exotic to our ears. To pass or fail these tests requires our taking them in a state of guileless ease, imagining that how we say the thing, do the thing, would never stick out. A shibboleth is likely to be a nuanced variation, then, of something already pervasive in general life, such that subtle ineptitude — awkwardness rather than profound misunderstanding — unveils the infidel. 

You may catch a whiff of put-down in the term shibboleth, of sneering irony, when it’s applied from outside that select group, or by dissidents within. In such cases, the word points to jingoistic bombast that gets said too automatically — as well as reiterated ad nauseam — and therefore retains little genuine meaning. When the empowered among tight-knit communities invoke “our children,” always with pious, tortured rectitude, that phrase — our children — is a shibboleth. It’s a shibboleth for two reasons. First, because it has nothing to do with real children (although it appears to) and is in fact a diversion, a smokescreen. They’re distracting you from the enactment of, almost without exception, some dubious — or at least nebulous — agenda. Not only is a sketchy principle getting smuggled in under your nose, it’s being protected from scrutiny and criticism by the verbal equivalent of a human shield. (Just as the Gileadites probably weren’t interested in discussing horticulture with escaping Ephraimites, so bloviating, righteous worthies of, wherever, Stepford or Bedrock or Mayberry or Mongibello, striving to consolidate their power, may not seriously trouble themselves over the welfare of your little boys and girls. You hope not.) Second, and perhaps more importantly, everyone else, knowing it to be bullshit, parrots it back in order to affirm his or her legitimacy within that social system. Gainsayer, gadfly, anybody questioning the honesty, or even the applicability, of that phrase risks immediate ostracism.

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Those Who Walk Away

In-groups protect their sovereignty, guarding against interlopers, with many devices that work like shibboleths. Some of these are verbal, some not. Stylized gestures, for example, that would be unique to card-carrying members of that in-group. Likewise, minor but significant deviations from traditional clothing, or the way clothing is worn. Things like personal space, how we manage and negotiate relative physical proximity within our chosen alliances. As to the linguistic kind, not all of these are words as such, mere verbiage. Unusual and heightened speech rhythms might act as shibboleths. So too plummy accents. Or street accents, for that matter.

And certainly, on this model, standardized grammar (along with doctrinaire rule-enforcement that delegitimizes vernacular language) performs the function of a shibboleth. Two paragraphs back I wrote “his or her” in a situation in which “their” would have done the same job. Neither is more correct, more preferable in that context. (In fact, their, when construed as referring to singular antecedents, has been perfectly acceptable in smart, grown-up, expository English for hundreds of years.) My choice, my diction, serves only to align me with a particular clan that has since become an embarrassment to me: people who, pretending to be educated, are really just bossy about [mythologically] correct usage. An adolescent of dazzling but fake precocity when I chose sides, I now know better.

•••

In those days, it would have been people like my step-grandmother who embarrassed me. Portuguese by birth, having immigrated to the United States in her late teens, she remained throughout her English-speaking life baffled, or pretended to be, by our unshakable belief that double-negations (e.g., “Can’t get no satisfaction”) must be nonsensical. Each denial canceled out by the other, our only rational assumption — Jagger and Richards notwithstanding — would be absurd: a positive, an affirmation, like two wrongs making a right. In her native language, as in many great languages, this kind of syntax, which is called negative concord, is perfectly normal. Normal for João de Barros. Normal for Eça de Queirós. Normal for Saramago. (I sometimes wonder if my step-gran had simply declined to embrace basic stipulations of acceptable English because it would have meant renouncing an important cultural shibboleth of her own: the idiomatic grammatical customs of her native Azores. She was proud of where she’d come from, the toughness of that life. Americans, she felt, were not only idiots but, worse, soft.)

Yet in the kind of English spoken here by successful white people on television, that sort of double negative would be regarded as abnormal, possibly subnormal — evidence of low birth, spurious intent, Original Sin. And that’s not because some inherent logical fallacy should make it so; instead, we’re bowing to a convention agreed to among members of the in-group — those who represent the money or hold the power. If like me you’ve ever loafed in your hammock of a summer’s eve, fourth martini in one hand and The General Prologue in the other, you’ll understand that once upon a time the opposite was true in English: “He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde/ In all his lyf unto no maner wight4.” Chaucer was an upper-level bureaucrat, a civil servant, familiar figure at court. His syntax wasn’t some sloppy argot of black-market commerce and turf wars. On the contrary, it was the prissy kind favored by diplomats.

•••

Truth be told, I don’t want to identify with such types, the prissy types of my own day. It’s just too late for me to change. Not to choose, for example, possessive determiners (his, her, etc) that “agree in number” feels weird to me, both sloppy and artificial. My voice is something I’m used to now. Switching to less pedantic-sounding phrasings and inflections — although I sort of wish I could, especially where, as Highsmith’s Ray Garrett says, “the idea was clear enough” — would feel shady, deceptive. But then, it’s also possible that deception is driving my reluctance. (Do our motivations not slip, more or less inevitably, beneath our own radar?) Maybe my truer interest, though presumably an unconscious one, is in distancing myself from the haves-not, while consorting with the haves, the “victors” by whom it is said history will be written3. If so, I’m probably guessing wrong anyway. I beg that I am: please, please, may posterity not condone the fascist schemes of a bunch of slithery, amateur purists who keep saying stuff like “the goal of language is clarity and avoidance of vagueness or ambiguity.”5 Language has no goal. Even if it did, it wouldn’t privilege “clarity” over “ambiguity.” That’s a terrible misunderstanding of how language operates, of how we operate it.

•••

Not that this should be taken as a point of pride, our apparent manipulation and ownership of that medium. If it sounds like autonomy it’s autonomy of a lower order, closer to Kant’s arbitrium brutum — an instinctive, brutish kind — than to free will. We mainly choose among fairly degraded options. Our contemporary way of saying shibboleth — preferring the shit-sound to the suck-sound  this is of course a standard imposed by the victors of a battle fought long ago between one Semitic tribe and another. Reverse the outcome, reverse the direction of flight or retreat, and we’d owe our pronunciation to the other side. Would it matter? Same people, same language; separated by what is now, below the Sea of Galilee, barely more than a poisoned trickle meandering south across scorched earth.


  1. Those Who Walk Away, Patricia Highsmith (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1967, 139)
  2. In different circumstances — see Isaiah 27:12 — it could also mean stream. This is in any case beside the point.
  3. Proved not least by this very axiom. Most often attributed to Winston Churchill, the Second World War’s most famous victor, in truth it probably originated in a slightly longer sentiment expressed by Walter Benjamin, who was, needless to say, one of that same war’s most famous casualties. It appears in part VII of his essay The Concept of History, the last major work that Benjamin wrote before, succumbing to Nazi persecution, he committed suicide: “The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time.” [Dennis Redmond’s translation]
  4. “He never yet no vileness didn’t say/ In all his life to no manner of man … ” [lines 70-72]
  5. You’ll have to scroll down the page, to 2:26pm of the comment area, where someone named Ben something, after first declaring his lack of qualifications to opine, opines.

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