The Age

Tribe talking

Author: Mel Campbell
Date: 22/01/2011
Words: 1002
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: A2
Page: 19
At turns unifying and divisive, the city's shibboleths offer the last word on local, writes Mel Campbell.

WHERE'S Bay 13? What's a potter carton, or Chap laps? And who's holding a grand sale on Il Modernissimo?

If you're from Melbourne, you'll know Bay 13 is the possie at the 'G where yobbos piff tinnies and go home in the back of a divvy van. That is, it's the Melbourne Cricket Ground seating section known for disorderly conduct that will get you arrested.

Potter cartons are half-pint glasses of Carlton Draught beer, Chap laps are evening car cruises around Chapel Street, South Yarra, and Il Modernissimo is purveyed in Franco Cozzo's furniture stores. Where? In Brunswick and Footiscray.

These are all shibboleths.

A shibboleth is a use of language or custom that roots out interlopers as it cements the bonds among insiders. Because they are grounded in casual, everyday conversations and habits, shibboleths generate both powerful senses of belonging and sharp social divisions. They have been used, sometimes with appalling ruthlessness, in ethnic, ideological and class warfare.

But they are also repositories of cultural memory, bridging generations and preserving ephemeral "moments". Advertising taglines, pop-cultural characters and political episodes all remain in our language years after their currency has faded. "Jeff's Shed", for instance, neatly encapsulates Victoria's big-picture stewardship under the Kennett Liberal state government.

Most intriguingly, shibboleths can map a place in a way that's both arterial and capillary  instantly tapping its most recognisable qualities, and accessing the tiniest details of its social relations. It's no accident that the most telling Melbourne shibboleths are localities: Pran, Upweigh, Rezzavore.

The word "shibboleth" is Hebrew for a head of grain. Its contemporary meaning comes from an Old Testament episode between two warring tribes: the victorious Gileadites mercilessly picked off Ephraimite refugees at the Jordan River crossings by making every traveller pronounce the word. The Ephraimite dialect lacked a "sh" sound so, as the Book of Judges recounts, if the hapless fugitive replied "sibboleth", "they seized him and slaughtered him . . . At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell."

Shibboleths have delineated sides during armed conflict, as passwords pronounceable only by allies. Australian Second World War troops in the Pacific used "Woolloomooloo" to find each other in the field.

Shibboleths have also enabled political prejudice and even genocide. In 1937, Dominican president Rafael Trujillo feared land grabs from neighbouring Haiti, so he sanctioned the slaughter of up to 30,000 Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. It became known as the Parsley Massacre, since French or Creole-speaking Haitians were targeted because of their difficulty saying the Spanish word for parsley, "perejil".

English "U" (for upper-class) and "non-U" speech was also an anxious contest over borders  in this case, of class. The notion that the aristocracy possessed a distinctive vocabulary  famously chronicled by author Nancy Mitford  obsessed an ambitious post-WWII bourgeoisie, who both chafed at its snobbery and saw it as a key to social mobility.

But as with all shibboleths, only non-U speakers made mistakes. U-speakers enforced the penalties  in this case, social humiliation and exclusion. Shirley Conran describes this subtle, capricious tyranny in her 1982 blockbuster novel Lace:

"In 'U' circles there was only one thing worse than not knowing these subtleties and that was pretending to know them, aping your betters. One little slip and this was apparent: all you had to do was to refer to the Royal Yacht Squadron as the Royal Yacht Club once, or hang family photographs on the walls instead of propping them on side-tables in silver frames from Asprey, and you were doomed."

The penalty for getting Melbourne's shibboleths wrong is milder: not being taken seriously, or treated with suspicion. I saw this in action while working in an industry people already distrust: market research.

During a statewide phone survey of local council performance, it was striking how much more readily people responded if Nillumbik, Boroondara and Maribyrnong tripped casually off the interviewer's tongue.

Shibboleths map Melbourne's class divides while pinpointing the side on which the speaker sits. Some places are disparaged, such as West Heidelburglary, Scumshine, Depreston and Chernobyl Park. Meanwhile, inhabitants of Broady and Franga demonstrate a matey, rank-closing response to outside snobbery.

There are also inter-suburb rivalries: Eltham residents call Doncaster "Donkey", while Mitcham kids refer to nearby "Ringworm". Student-filled, left-leaning Brunswick is both ridiculed and celebrated as the People's Republic of Moreland and Brunswickistan.

Also in Brunswick is "Sparkly Bear", the effervescent local shopping centre known to outsiders as Barkly Square. Like many shibboleths, its origins are hazy, contested and almost certainly apocryphal, but saying it shows you're a local. Other Melbourne retail venues are similarly tribal, like Myers (always plural  like the Melways!), chichi Chaddy and Shoppo, or Knifelands and Knifepoint.

Because shibboleths change over time, they instantly reveal how long someone has lived in Melbourne. You can date your residency to the 1980s if you associate 230 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, with Erich Planinsek's fur and leathergoods emporium. Remember?

A certain nostalgia sets in catching the train to Museum Station or the tram to Spencer Street Station, tended by connies and marauded by Met inspectors. The words feel warm and romantic, unlike touching on with your myki at Melbourne Central or Southern Cross for fear of revenue protection officers.

A true shibboleth test requires two participants  an applicant desperate to pass and a gatekeeper determined to produce failure. Perhaps the ultimate Melbourne shibboleth is Melburnians' determination to defend their tribe against potential interlopers who don't really savour the contest. It's a truism that the fabled Melbourne/Sydney rivalry has always been prosecuted more keenly in Melbourne.

Similarly, only those who live north of the Yarra seem particularly invested in the northside/southside divide.

However, as long as people still move here from regional Victoria, interstate and overseas  and they'll always move "down" to Melbourne, except from Tasmania  we will require our shibboleths. They may largely be arcane quirks. But in testing our accumulated knowledge on newcomers, we also reinforce our belief that here is where we belong.

 
 
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