When, in one of ancient Palestine's numerous tribal wars, the Ephraimites sought to slip undetected among the Gileadites, the latter asked all comers to pronounce the word "shibboleth" (ear of corn). Those who called it "shibboleth" were Ephraimites, got killed. Last week many a shibboleth was voiced on a new Mutual network program called Where Are You From? Dr. Henry Lee Smith Jr., smart, wispy-mustached, 26-year-old Columbia University lecturer in English, cocked an expert ear when members of a WOR studio audience read improbable statements like the following:
"I'll have shrimp cocktail first, Mary; be very careful how you carry the tray there. . . . About the dessertthis Tarrytown Speciala fruit salad of bananas, berries and pears with caramel sauce on it. That's about all, but don't hurry though. That's the dollar dinner I want served next week when I get off the train from Washington." Dr. Smith tries to identify speakers' places of origin by their pronunciation. and, what is more, does so about 70% of the time.
Where Are You From? began last year when Maurice Dreicer, who was conducting a program called The Speechmaster for Brooklyn's small station WCNW, put on Dr. Smith as a guest. Lofty-browed station WQXR built a program around the young lecturer; WOR and the Mutual chain signed him up a month ago. Program time: 8:30 p.m. E. D. S. T. on Wednesdays.
"Mary.'' "marry" and "merry" rank high among the shibboleths which Dr. Smith's victims are asked to say. A person who pronounces all three alike is probably from the Midwest, or, for some reason, around Bridgeport, Conn. "Mayry" spots a Southerner and a New Englander.
New Yorkese, which New York Uni versity phoneticians have discovered to be the least popular type of U. S. speech (TIME, March 11), is the easiest for Dr. Smith to guess. He has identified Bronxites and Brooklynites at the drop of an r, located Manhattanites within a few blocks of their homes. Once he spotted the influence of a French school in a naturalized American woman whose accent sounded normally German to ordinary listeners. Dr. Smith has learned his trade from books and phonograph records, has more difficulty with the pronunciations of his native Baltimore than with New Yorkese.