Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

You can lose your keys and your virginity. But you can’t lose me.

What am I?

I have been around since the dawn of the modern human. You have one. We all have one, although some people stupidly claim they don’t. You can lose your keys, temper and virginity, but I am almost impossible to lose. If you haven’t got rid of me by the time you are a teenager you’ve probably got me for life.

I carry your identity. For some that means status and power. For others I foster suspicion and distrust. At worst, I am a terrifying tool of death.

Dolly Parton has an unmistakable one. It twangs like a banjo. Maurice Chevalier and Thomas Piketty have strong ones. The British Isles are full of them.

Yes, we are talking about the linguistic marker that identifies you as a stranger, a threat, a neighbour or an ally; your accent. Accent is the way of pronouncing a language. It is also a key tool in how we process information about another human. It is the frontline litmus test to exclude or include.

The Hebrew word shibboleth historically refers to the part of a plant containing the grain (an ear of corn or a stalk of wheat). Today, in English, shibboleth means a linguistic password: A way of speaking (an accent, pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by a group of people to identify another person as a member, or more importantly, as a non-member.

Shibboleth appears in a dark and bloody passage in the Bible. The book of Judges tells of the defeat of the Ephraimites by Gileadite soldiers who then blocked refugees from crossing the Jordan River. Each person who wanted to cross the river was shown a shibboleth and asked what it was. The Ephraimites, unlike the Gileadites, had no ‘sh’ sound in their language. They pronounced the word with an ‘s’.

The book of Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites failed their accent test and were slaughtered.

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 to him, Are you an Ephraimite? If he said, No; Then said they to 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 - King James Bible

An estimated 20,000 Haitians (perhaps many more) were slaughtered by soldiers of the Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina over a five day period in 1937. The massacre is remembered as the Parsley Massacre. This time, soldiers were armed with a sprig of parsley (persil). The shibboleth was the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. Haitians spoke French and Creole and did not pronounce the word with the Spanish trill sound. They paid for this phonetic difference with their lives.

US soldiers the Pacific used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons during World War II. For non-Americans it was an unfamiliar term, but for Japanese, who have difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘l’, it was almost impossible to pronounce.

It’s no wonder accent neutralization or accent reduction has become a growing part of language learning. If you sound like a native, your chances of survival, at least financially and professionally, can greatly increase.

The UK is one of the most accent-obsessed countries in the world. The most neutral accent is called received pronunciation or RP.  It is the best known and most exported English accent. Think of BBC newsreaders, actress Dame Judi Dench and James Bond 007. Ironically, it’s spoken by only about three per cent of the population.

Heightened RP is the extremely posh and plummy accent; the sound of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey and the Queen herself.

The British accent was judged the world’s sexiest accent by 11,000 people this year. Surprisingly, French finished in fifth place behind American, Irish and Australian. But what is a British accent? It could be any of these… or maybe even this old favourite.




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