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Pronunciation as death sentence

October 31, 2012

Still image from Inglourious Basterds: Lieutenant Archie Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender) is an undercover British soldier recruited for Operation Kino in Nazi-occupied France. He inadvertently orders three glasses of scotch by holding up three middle fingers instead of the German hand gesture of thumb, index, and middle fingers, betraying his identity to an SS officer.

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shibboleth |ˈ sh ibəliθ; -ˌle θ| noun. a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people. ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Hebrew שבולת šibbōle‘ear of corn,’ used as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation. (From ‘The Shibboleth Incident,’ Judges 12:6, King James Bible: ‘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.’)

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‘Over a five-day period, as many 20,000 Haitians were horrifically massacred by Dominican soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, bayonets and rifles. It was called the Parsley Massacre because the Dominican border guards would conduct a linguistic test of all dark-skinned people to see who was Haitian—they would ask the people to pronounce the word perejil (Spanish for parsley). Because Haitians spoke French and Creole, they couldn’t pronounce the word properly—and would promptly be killed.’ (‘Parsley Massacre’ of Haitians by Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, 1937)

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‘Fadia recalls how the Phalangists set up a checkpoint along the way, killing anyone who spoke Arabic with a Palestinian accent. While we in the West joke—I say tomayto, you say tomahto—in Lebanon, where Phalangists asked those at the checkpoint to give them the Arabic word for “tomato,” the wrong pronunciation was a death sentence. The Lebanese pronunciation of “banadurra” was the password through the checkpoint; but those who said “ban-dora,” in the Palestinian fashion, were killed. The tears flow as she recalls that they would cut people’s throats or, even more horrifically, tie each leg to a different jeep and pull them apart. Women and girls were raped before being killed. Luckily for the Labounis their mother was a south Lebanese woman married to a Palestinian and she had the right accent and pronunciation.’ (Checkpoints by Phalangist militias during the Lebanese civil war, 1975)

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