James McElvenny writes:

Let me start this post by quoting scripture, a first for this godless heathen blog. The passage is Judges 12:5-6, where the Gileadites have beaten the Ephraimites in battle and are guarding the River Jordan to make sure no surviving Ephraimites can flee back into their homeland. When a Ephraimite refugee asks to be let across the river, the Gileadite soldier asks him to say the word shibboleth, which is Hebrew for “ear of corn”. If the queue-jumping terrorist refugee says sibboleth, in his distinctive Ephraimite accent, the soldier knows he’s a refugee and kills him:

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 said, Nay;

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.

Now I quote this story not to provide the major parties with a more attractive method of dealing with refugees, but rather because it’s the origin of the English term shibboleth, which refers to a characteristic way of saying or doing something that identifies someone as belonging to a particular group. There’s recently been some discussion here about shibboleths, spurred on by Andrew Herrick’s rant in the Age about the alleged invasion of Australian English with American terms and the “toxic” cultural influences these words are allegedly a sign of.

William Steed has already pointed out that change is a fact of language and that even though there are obvious cultural influences from America, Australian English remains a distinct dialect. And Mark Liberman at Language Log wants to tell us that a lot of the terms Herrick claims to be American imports actually don’t sound that American to him and may have in fact probably been used in Australia for a long time. He also rejects the claim Herrick makes that there used to be no words for “mugging”, “drive-by shooting”, etc in Australian English and that we’ve only had to adopt these terms because we’ve imported the great American cultural institutions they signify.

I’ll leave the topic of the connection between culture and language, which I think is actually more interesting and complex than it is often given credit for, and just have a look at the arguments concerning the “Americanness” or otherwise of various terms in Australian English. Liberman demonstrates with some citations from the Australian Newspapers archive that the terms chalkboard and rush hour as opposed to the dinky-di blackboard and peak hour have a long history in Australia.

The use of corpus data like this is becoming increasingly popular among linguists, as it should. It lets us know what people have actually said, not what they think they should have said, which are often two different things. I think there’s a problem though in Liberman’s use of the data. As we’ve already said, languages change over time and so a newspaper clipping from 1920 is not necessarily a good reflection of what counts as Aussie in 2010. A shibboleth is a shibboleth at a particular point in time and the murderer who draws his sword when he hears someone say sibboleth doesn’t care if his mom’s mom might have said it that way too.

In fact, if we repeat what was presumably Liberman’s search for “rush hour” in the Australian Newspapers archive, we find that the use of the term reached a peak in the period 1920-29 and then began to taper away. “Peak hour”, on the other hand, becomes more popular from the period 1920-29 onwards. Perhaps we’re seeing “peak hour” becoming established as the more markedly Australian term in this period and “rush hour” as non-Australian in the minds of speakers of Australian English. A similar vacillation between the use of traditional British and Noah Webster-inspired American spellings in Australia is well known. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to do a similar comparison between “chalkboard” and “blackboard” because there are so few examples of “chalkboard” in the newspaper archive.

Of course, none of this means that these words are necessarily American, as Liberman points out. Australian English speakers like Herrick may simply say these words sound foreign and so they must come from the Great Satan (although of course Herrick wants us to know he’s not anti-American – he loves apple pie as much as the rest of us).

Perhaps the real moral we should take away from thousands of years of linguistic xenophobia that is attested already in that great ancient corpus, the Bible, is that we shouldn’t try to draw boundaries between us and them and assume that all bad things must come from outside. And we need to be wary of people who want to tell who we are or rather who we ought to be and use dubious arguments about national identity to support their case. Sermon finished.

[UPDATE: Mark Liberman responds here]

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