Shibboleth

“I got told…”

I’d noticed the phrase “I got told…” being used often and frequently. “I got told that the movie started at 8.30.” It didn’t sound right to me. I’d be more likely to say, “I was told that the movie started at 8.30.”

I searched for logic in the use of what we shall call IGT. How could ‘told’ be a thing that a person can get? You can get herpes, a fright, some milk, but told? Didn’t get mean the same as received? How could one receive told?

“So, what did you get last night?”
“A free ticket to the circus!”

“So, what did you get last night?”
“Told.”

No! It wasn’t right! It just wasn’t right! But more and more people kept using it. Shihad even used IGT it in the lyrics to their song “Pacifier,” spoiling, for me, what would otherwise be a very choice song.

I heard it in conversation. I read it on web pages. Was it right? Or was it an abomination of the English language?

I decided to seek the advice of an expert. I was doing a short course at Auckland Uni on English grammar so I decided to ask the guy taking that. He has a pHD in linguistics from MIT. (Whilst MIT is known more for science than linguistics, it has been the home of two very well-known linguists, Noam Chomsky, who writes lots of really boring stuff about linguistics, but who we must respect because he did all the hard work, and Steven Pinker, a linguistic rock star – read his books.)

Anyway, I asked my friendly Dr Linguist about IGT and I learned the following.

  • It’s not “incorrect” (i.e. there’s not an inner ring of Hell reserved for IGT users)
  • The meaning is clear – it’s not like I have to ask people to explain what they mean.
  • We say things like “I got up” and no one bats an eyelid.
  • IGT is more common in American English, and more common in spoken or less formal English.
  • IGT is my shibboleth.

Ah, Shibboleth! A very cool word, and an even cooler concept.

It comes from an event in the bible, (Judges 12:6). In the story, the Gileadites needed a way to figure out who were Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” in the word shibboleth, so when the Gileadites asked them to say it, they’d pronounce it “sibboleth” revealing that they were Ephramites, and would then be killed by the Gildeadites.

So shibboleth has come to mean, among other things, when a word or a particular use of language is used to distinguish one group of people from another. For example, if someone pronounces the name of the metal that’s 13 on the periodic table as “a-LOO-min-um”, I know that person is a foreigner with ways different to my own and should be viewed with suspicion. If they pronounce it as “al-yoo-MIN-ee-um”, I know that person is a friend and is to be trusted.

But back to “I got told”. Using those words is my shibboleth. If someone uses that around me, it sounds strange and I’m going to think less of them.

Hearing people saying that they “got told” doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, but I still think that people who say it just don’t sound as classy as they could.

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