Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Shibboleth (IPA: /ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1]) is any language usage indicative of one's social or regional origin, or more broadly, any practice that identifies members of a group. Apparently the shibboleth has become the subject of academic research. Two vintage cultural discussions of this topic predating this study from VisionCircle days come to mind, first a discussion of Roland Fryer's Acting White and second an early discussion with Negrorage aka TheGrayConservative about the cultural phenomenon of Blackness. But before we turn attention to the gist of the study - let me state what should be obvious. The thing we know as culture is comprised of myriad unconscious behaviours and cues (thus the subrealist dimension) which serve to identify one as a member of a given cultural grouping. The term that I've used for some years to describe this phenomenon comes from Alan Carter and is called "microsynchronization of body language". Some of us easily and effortlessly model multiple cultural configurations and can easily segue into and out of cultural milieus at will, and others, not so much. So-called nerds and autistic spectrum individuals seem strongly disinclined to trouble themselves with cultural microsynchronization, thus the stereotypical and nearly universal characterization of the "nerd" type, which largely defies cultural embedding.

While everybody responds to it in varying degrees, once you're aware that this form of comprehensive unconscious signaling takes place - the synchronization of your body language is no more complicated than the synchronization of your language or dialect. It's simple mimicry. A careful student of microsynchronization and practitioner of subtle mimicry can wield exceptional influence in a rich variety of social contexts - here's the abstract in question;

What leads humans to divide the social world into groups, preferring their own group and disfavoring others? Experiments with infants and young children suggest these tendencies are based on predispositions that emerge early in life and depend, in part, on natural language. Young infants prefer to look at a person who previously spoke their native language. Older infants preferentially accept toys from native-language speakers, and preschool children preferentially select native-language speakers as friends. Variations in accent are sufficient to evoke these social preferences, which are observed in infants before they produce or comprehend speech and are exhibited by children even when they comprehend the foreign-accented speech. Early-developing preferences for native-language speakers may serve as a foundation for later-developing preferences and conflicts among social groups.
The term originates from the Hebrew word "shibboleth" (שיבולת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain [2] or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent"[3] [4] It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group (the Ephraimites) whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ sound (as in shoe) from members of a group (the Gileadites) whose dialect did include such a sound.

In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these disguised refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:
Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, 'Let me cross,' the men of Gilead would ask, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'No,' they then said, 'Very well, say Shibboleth.' If anyone said, 'Sibboleth', because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

– Judges 12:5-6, NJB
As some of you may have observed in the comments over the weekend, there are some subrealist shibboleths, as well. So called racial realists of any stripe or persuasion are quick to get the gas face and be banished to the murky swamps from whence their beliefs and thinking emanate. Seriously - anybody who pretends that prejudice is universal to an arbitrarily defined group of people, or, that complex behavioural patterns that are obviously culturally determined are rooted in dimly understood genetic wetware - is basically stuck too deep in the mud of stupid to waste cycles trying to extract. As far as I'm concerned, those folks don't even have entertainment value.