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Shibboleths and parsley

What is the connection between Shibboleth and Parsley? OK, so clearly parsley has been used as a shibboleth at some point, but when and in what manner?

Let’s start with what, precisely, a shibboleth is. Wikipedia, anyone?

A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/ or /ˈʃɪbələθ/) is a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important. It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.”

Wikipedia furnishes a fascinating list of shibboleths from throughout the world and history.

The word itself comes from the Bible, specifically the Book of Judges, which relates the defeat of the Ephraimites by the Gileadites. Following the battle, the Ephraimites tried to escape across the River Jordan, the fords of which the Gileadites were blocking; everyone who tried to cross was made to say the word ‘shibboleth’ (because the Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the ‘sh’, you see):

5 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;
6 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.

—Judges 12:5-6, (KJV)

So. The connection with parsley. As you will no doubt remember from a recent(ish) blog post, I have (had) been reading Vargas Llosa’s magisterial La Fiesta del Chivo, which centres on the life of the Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo.

Quite early in his rule, Trujillo ordered and co-ordinated a brutal extermination of undocumented Haitian settlers along the Dominican-Haitian border. This event came to be known as the Parsley Massacre, because non-natives could not properly pronounce the Spanish word ‘perejil’ (parsley).

Trujillo’s soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley, ask what it was, and assume that those who could not pronounce perejil correctly were Haitian, as both French and Haitian Creole realize the ‘r’ as an uvular approximant and their speakers have difficulties with the alveolar tap or trill of Spanish.

As it turned out, many of the estimated 20,000 victims were citizens of the Dominican Republic, having been born in the borderlands, but speaking a creolised Spanish.

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