The Tower of Babel, as seen in this Pieter Bruegel the Elder piece, is most famous for the “confusion of languages” and the dispersal of peoples across the globe. Photo from Wikipedia

Celebrating language as God’s miracle

  • July 8, 2022

Your accent betrays you.
-- Matthew 26: 73

As a bilingual person I have often written about the joys and dangers of “linguistic passing.” Depending on where I found myself, I could remove or change my accent — speaking Québécois French when I needed to, Europeanizing my French on occasion and then making my French tones disappear in an English context. My goal was to disguise my origins if I sensed hostility, back when linguistic tensions were at their worse in la belle province. I confess to thinking that this was unique to Canada so was surprised to discover, as I travelled to over 50 countries, that virtually every place has a version of this, with dialects, patois, accents and more, either strictly regulated, judged or celebrated.

When I spent time as a visiting professor in France, I needed to deliver my lectures in French to the first-year students studying English as their language skills were weak, but I marvelled at the skill level they had achieved by their final year. Indeed, I discovered that many of the tutors I met, who had impeccable British accents, were actually francophones. The English program hired tutors who only spoke perfect Queen’s English to teach “received pronunciation.” As a result, the one British-born tutor on staff was made to do all the pronunciation classes. She was thrilled. She revelled in having a heavy Birmingham accent and joked she would “corrupt them all!”

Anyone who has studied English literature will understand the incredible change that has taken place over time so that early poetry is almost unrecognizable to contemporary English speakers. Less obvious is how pronunciation changes transform better known works. Shakespeare is a case in point. As a literature professor, I found my students often complained about the complexity of Elizabethan English. Less obvious was how our contemporary pronunciation changed the meaning of some of Shakespeare’s best-known wordplays. I remember explaining to students that in Shakespeare’s day, many of the sonnets we were studying actually rhymed when to our ear today they seem not to. “Prove,” for example, rhymed with “love” so Sonnet 166 read differently to his audience: “If this be error and upon me proved/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Many of his more salacious wordplays and puns, indeed hundreds of them, are somewhat obscured because of pronunciation differences.

I thought of this recently when I came across a familiar Biblical passage, where I paused on a key detail I had overlooked. One of the best-known moments in the Bible is Peter’s denial of Jesus, as described in Matthew 26. Here, several individuals accuse Peter of knowing Jesus, and his denial is well known. One bystander becomes insistent and cries, “You must be one of them, your accent betrays you.” While there is scholarly debate about the meaning of the actual word used to say “accent,” for many it is indicative of Peter’s Galilean origins. It occurred to me that Christ, too, had an accent, and was known by the way He spoke.

This prompted me to look further into the moments in the Bible where language is a specific focus. Certainly, the Tower of Babel is most famous for the “confusion of languages” and the dispersal of all peoples across the globe. But there is a brutal moment in the Old Testament where the extremes of linguistic policing are most shockingly demonstrated. In Judges 12, we are told of the battle between the men of Ephraim against the Ammonites. When the soldiers of Gilead caught fleeing Ephraimites, they administered a language test to decide their identity:

Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,”they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time (Judges 12, 5-6).

Judging people according to their languages and accents — their differences and beliefs — has continued since time immemorial to varying degrees of severity and extent. Surely this speaks to one of our greatest failings: our inability, at times, to see difference as enriching rather than limiting. Language, like race, is a sign of the miracle of God’s creation, and to do anything other than celebrate diversity and inclusion seems positively blasphemous.

(Gerry Turcotte is the in-coming Principal of St. Mark’s College and President of Corpus Christi College.)

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