Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Language differences as shibboleths in a pandemic

Michael Gavin, Stanley Dubinsky

In times of crisis, when people experience fear, they often express hostility toward others. They discriminate against people who look like “enemies”. The well-known and shameful internment of Japanese-Americans in World War 2 is such a case. The discrimination against German-Americans in World War 1 was similar. Unlike Japanese-Americans, German-Americans didn’t look much different from other white Americans, but they sounded different. Many had German names, learned German in school, read German books and newspapers, and worshiped in German-language churches. In response, one American state (Iowa) actually banned the German language, burned German books, and renamed offending towns and streets [Davies and Dubinsky 2018: 178-180].

With nearly every country in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s not surprising that people seek strangers to blame. We have seen the victimization of Asians in the US and the persecution of Africans in China. Often, differences that separate ‘them’ from ‘us’ are not visible. Sometimes the difference is how they speak.

Identifying an “enemy” based on differences in language, dialect, or regional accents can be traced back to the Hebrew Bible (Judges, Chapter 12). When the people of Gilead repulsed the invading Ephraimites, fleeing soldiers looked just like local inhabitants. So, they were given a simple test: “Say now Shibboleth.” Soldiers who couldn’t pronounce “sh” (saying “sibboleth” instead of “shibboleth”) were killed on the spot.

Likewise, in this pandemic, people use language as a marker that signals danger and contagion.

With the New York metro area as the most severely affected center of infection in the US, individuals fleeing from that area have been less than welcome across the Eastern seaboard. When they’re not recognized by their license plates, New Yorkers are identified, and shunned, because of their accents. In China, people in provinces removed from the epicenter have been alert for people who speak with a Wuhan accent, discriminating against them in public spaces. In Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, Mandarin Chinese speakers have been viewed as threats to public health and have been denied service in restaurants and other public accommodations.

A 2017 Pew Global Research study conducted in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and ten European countries found that “language matters more to national identity” than any other factor polled (birthplace, religion, or traditions and culture). And as the aspect of human behavior that matters most, language (e.g. pronunciation, word choice, intonation) turns out to be the most important means of identifying strangers. Our research group, the Language Conflict Project, has tracked violations of language rights around the world and we are not surprised to see linguistic differences instrumentalized as shibboleths in this pandemic and used to discriminate against others. That said, being aware of this vector of discrimination might help people to avoid it.

Language Conflict and Language Rights by William D. Davies, Stanley Dubinsky
Language Conflict and Language Rights by William D. Davies, Stanley Dubinsky
Understanding Language through Humor by Stanley Dubinsky, Chris Holcomb
Understanding Language through Humor by Stanley Dubinsky, Chris Holcomb
The Invention of English Criticism by Michael Gavin
The Invention of English Criticism by Michael Gavin

About The Authors

Michael Gavin

Michael writes and teaches about literature, intellectual history, and digital humanities. Broadly speaking, his interest lies in the ways that technology affects communication. Hi...

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Stanley Dubinsky

Stanley's primary area of research is syntactic theory and the syntax-semantics interface. He has produced three books, four edited volumes, and several dozen articles and book cha...

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