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Petty John! Shibboleth?

May 2, 2023

I start a lot of my mornings with a look at the Smithsonian Channel’s Aerial America series with an hour devoted to each state. Each episode is shot from above, using a gyro-stabilized camera setup suspended from a helicopter. As expected, it waxes political here and there, serving progressive narratives by what it homes in on and what it ignores, but overall, it’s instructive and gratifying to Americans across the board. And the visuals are stunning.


Having grown up in Arkansas, from first grade through college, I was particularly interested in how it covered the state. But the mispronunciation of two words caught me by surprise. The first was what they did with the Poteau River, which flows north to Fort Smith. The narrator said “Pah–Toe” whereas the locals say “Poe–Toe.” And then he rendered ‘Petit Jean’ (a mountain and a state park) as “Petty John,” a try at the French, “Pe-Tee-Zhohn.” Alas, we say “Pet-ty-Jeen”—but, hey, it’s our mountain.  


Yes, we mangle (or refine) foreign names, and it can be embarrassing to be called out for a goof. I was once in San Diego’s Balboa Park, where the art museum featured a Robert Henri exhibition. I’m a fan of Henri and his New York Ashcan School, which featured down and gritty New York City scenes. When I ask the guy at the front desk the way to the “Ahn-Ree” paintings, he said, somewhat condescendingly, I could find the “Hen–Rye” works just up and to the left. Oops.


Back to Arkansas, I pastored FBC El Dorado. One day I was ordering an item from the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay), and I gave the lady our mailing address—200 W Main, “El-Dor-Ray-Doe.” When she read it back to me, she said “El-Dor-Rah-Doe,” as if I didn’t know my town’s name.


Another letdown came through an ROTC-promotion film. (Yes, a film, as with a reel-to-reel projector.) As young cadets at Ouachita Baptist University in 1966, we watched this high-class production with none other than NBC’s Chet Huntley (he of the nightly news, before 24-hr CNN appeared) providing the narration. Imagine our delight when it featured a commissioned officer from our little old college, but, sad to say, Huntley pronounced it “Oh–Ah–Chee-Tuh” instead of “Wah-Shi-Taw.” Come on, man! I guess an East Coast media celebrity couldn’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a school name down in Podunk, Flyover. But wasn’t he a professional? And hadn’t he heard of the Ouachita Mountains, Lake Ouachita, the Ouachita River, etc. Apparently not. And it took some shine off the film.


Of course, that sort of thing happens all over creation. I’ve been corrected repeatedly, told that it was “Nuh-Va-Duh” instead of “Nuh-Vah-Duh” and “Boy-See” instead of “Boy-Zee.” And what’s this business with Nacogdoches (Na-kuh-Doe-Chus) and Nachitoches (“Na-Kuh-Dish”)? Gimme a break.


This brings to mind the Judges 12:5-6 account of the failure of Ephraimites to get the pronunciation of ‘Shibboleth’ right. In Hebrew, the beginning ‘S’ is either pronounced like our ‘S’ or as “Sh.” (In our seminary studies we learned to distinguish them by a dot over “shin”/”sheen” or “sin”/”seen,” a letter that looks like a ‘W.’) Anyway, the Ephraimites went with the latter, and the men from Gilead used the former, so they were able expose them as the enemy since they blew the password.


In our context, the mistakes are not so deadly. (Though I do recall a black and white movie where a Russian spy was uncovered by his mispronunciation of ‘Tucson’—saying “Tuck-Sun” rather than “Too-Sahn.”) Today, we are more typically amused, but there can be an element of judgment, the sort of impatience I felt when hearing Huntley or the Smithsonian guy. Are they so provincial or careless that they either don’t know the score, or don’t care? I suppose the message to all parties is “Get off your high horse.” Huntley needed to climb down from his New York heights to double-check ‘Ouachita,’ and we Ouachitonians should have gone easy on harumphing over his gaffe when we’d likely call Houston street in Manhattan, “Hew-Stun” instead of the proper “How-Stun.” We both needed some humility . . . and some homework.