Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Names and the Shibboleth test

NY Times article "To Stay Alive, Iraqis Change Their Names"

It looks like this story came out on the same day that Claire discussed the "Shibboleth test" in lecture. Sapir is one of the first people to point out the 'socializing' function of language, and the passage on p.17 seems helpful: "The extraordinary importance of minute linguistic differences for the symbolization of psychologically real as contrasted with politically or sociologically official groups is intuitively felt by most people. 'He talks like us' is equivalent to saying 'He is one of us.'"

In last semester's Language & Power class, Tim McNamara, from the University of Melbourne, came and lectured to class one day. (The article we read: McNamara, Tim. 21st century shibboleth: Language tests, identity and intergroup conflict. In Language Policy 4:4, 2005, 1-17). His argument was basically what was summarized by Claire yesterday--that not only are differences in pronunciation (what one group might consider consequential phonemic difference, and another group not recognize at all, or only as slight phonetic difference) used to decide who is in and who is out of a particular social group, but that such immediate judgments may be used to banish, torture, or kill, and indeed have been in multiple settings and in multiple eras.

This article though was startling to me because it argues that it's not even what we say, but our very names that can be used for similar purposes. On one hand it seems to relate somehow to our everyday experiences, where someone's name (read or heard) might trigger ideas or associations about ethnic group 'membership', for example, but to take this to the next level and say that it is one's name alone that can be the significant factor in life-or-death experiences....overwhelming.

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