Shibboleths - A Mini-tutorial

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Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 12 “Mini-Tutorials” – Section 1 “Shibboleths”

In the craft of writing, there are many skills that cannot be directly linked to any other set of skill for a nice compound tutorial. These will mostly include isolated topics and answers to questions I receive in the notes. In fact, there are many of you that have given some excellent topic suggestions and requests that I have been unable to get to simply because I couldn't find a tutorial of direct relevance. So, along with my current tutorials, I'm going to put out a few bite-sized tutorials. Today, I'm going to talk about Shibboleths.

What is a Shibboleth?

In writing and linguistics, a shibboleth is a word, phrase, manner of speech, or pronunciation that distinguishes an in-group from an out-group. This word actually comes from the twelveth chapter of Judges. I promise that this is in no way a sermon, just historical context so that you can understand the word.

So the story goes that, two people groups were at war. One group captured a shallow place in a river, where their enemies were known to cross. Well, every now and then, some people would try to pass the river claiming to be allies. The guards who patrolled the river would test those people by asking them to say the word, “Shibboleth.” (This translates to either the part of a plant containing grain, or a stream.) Since both people groups had different ways of pronouncing this word, the guards were able to identify their enemies because the enemy tribe pronounced the word as, “[S]ibboleth” (without the [Sh]).

We still use Shibboleths today, though perhaps not as directly. People from the northern US identify people from the southern US (who have lost their accent) when southern people use the conjugation “y'all” for “you all”. People belonging to a town will pronounce the name of their town very differently from what it is spelled, making visitors immediately identifiable. Teenagers and young adults sometimes even use expletives in order to identify someone trustworthy and nonjudgmental, from those who would become arbitrarily offended (at least, I know I did). Even different subcultures (from racial, to economic, to regional, to hobbyist) make up their own slang and words, so they that can identify their own.

I'm not saying that any these applications for Shibboleths are inherently good or bad, only that they are a reality in culture and in our speech. And you can use them to add to the authenticity of your writing. Anyone—from travelers, to orcs, elves, and extraterrestrial species—can have unique elements to how they speak. These don't have to be accents or subtle pronunciations, but also patterns and word choices that become unique tells of each region of character you create. This can be particularly effective in stories where the protagonist goes on a long journey and meets many different people groups. I will help curb the feeling that every single group of people that the protagonist meets is just more of the same, and will add flavor to the text.  


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A Personal Update: Finally feeling well enough to walk, I decided to go on a hike. It was rather pretty, though not entirely what I expected. The marshlands were populated with a variety of white and gray water-birds. But it seemed that the trails were more for hunters for most of the season, so the terrain was not well-kept for hikers. I was still enjoying it, though, until I stepped onto the thick dry chute of some plant that went completely through the bottom of my shoe and into my foot. This led to my hobbling and bleeding back to my truck; it was rather amusing. So I'm going to hobble around and work on writing for a few days before I try that again. 

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Mythrin's avatar
Foot injury, eh?  Well, I think if you ever break a leg and are wheelchair-bound until it heals, you are literarily obligated to write a "Rear Window" reboot.
Graeystone's avatar
When I first saw the title my first thought was, "He's talking about HP Lovecraft."

In PA - Presque Isle and Nittany Lions. 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Lol, I guess it does look a little like a lovecraftian title. 
Graeystone's avatar
There's a possible guide - How to create proper nouns for your made up nightmare race.
CloudedHeu's avatar
 I've enough trouble getting decent dialogue down let alone prettying it up or dragging it through the mud, but this will sure help when I get to that point :D (Big Grin) . also sorry to hear about your foot.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Of course :) This is hardly even a necessity of writing. That's why I just made it a little mini-tutorial, so that people could have it in their tool-box in case they ever needed it. 
Oh, it's fine, it was more funny than painful. I'm sure real wilderness adventurers would have just been shaking their heads. 
TheWarOfTheRing's avatar
Whenever I try to include accents in my writing, I overdo it and it comes off heavy handed. Like, if I was writing the previous sentence in a Southern twang, it'd go like this: "whenever ah try ta include accents in ma writin', ah overdo it an' it comes off heavy-handed like." So, how can you write accents without going too over-the-top, and in the process maybe playing in to stereotypes?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well, shibboleths, you may not want to use accents. Try using speech patterns and word choices. For example, you can make a people group always refer to themselves in the plural (so they never us "me" or "I"). This is a simple example that had been done before, but you get the idea. For accents, I recommend just finding exact words used by the people groups you make (or making them up). Then make normal sentences with those words sprinkled in. When I'm writing someone with a heavy southern accent, for example, I use lots of "Hon" "Bless your heart" "y'all" "goddam" and other words and phrases that are legitimate but strongly tied to that culture. 
TheWarOfTheRing's avatar
Okay, thanks for the advice :)

(btw, love your tutorials, plan to read through the whole catalogue as soon as I get a chance)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No prob :) 

Glad you enjoy. Some of them (those that are not 2.0) are a little rough. But I am working to update them. 
Leopold002's avatar
So an example would be Worcester, Massachusetts. Locals pronounce it 'Wuster.'

Interesting as always.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Yes, that could be one :) 

Wow... now, I finally know why some people say, "wuster" sauce (when referring to Worcester Sauce). That had always been one of life's great mysteries for me.

Thanks for the comment, haha!
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