Huether. Heether. Heather. Hoother. Hutter. Huewther.
“Hütter, you’re German, right?”
“No, it’s Huether. Sounds like Heether.”
“Ah, American,” she answers with a slight chuckle.
With the simple change in the pronunciation of my surname, the panel chair was able to identify my nationality, and in so doing, indirectly created a border between us. She was German, and perhaps I could have passed as German as well, if only I had gone along with her pronunciation – the one I knew was the “correct” form of my surname but not my name. Regardless, her comment made me pause and think: how could such a slight pronunciation change signify so much? As soon as I was marked as an American, a corpus of assumptions and stereotypes became accessible. It’s not to say that such a corpus would not be present if I were German; it would be, but it would simply be a different corpus.
I thought about the aforementioned experience in Munich at the Lessons and Legacies Conference even more after my visit to the Jewish Museum Munich and its current exhibit Say Shibboleth!. Co-curated by the Jewish Museum Munich and the Jewish Museum Hohenems, the exhibit explores visible and invisible borders and is founded on the story of the word “Shibboleth” from the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible:
“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephramite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” 
In the story, the semantics of “Shibboleth” are null, and all that matters is how it sounds when one pronounces it. As the Ephramite leaves out the “h” and instead pronounces Sibboleth, he affirms that he is not a Gileadite, and thus his life is taken. It may seem strange that a simple pronunciation may be what separates one from life or death, and certainly the mispronunciation of my last name held no such implications. What these two examples do share, however, is how pronunciation can construct forms of difference.
Every society—and yes, I am employing a massive generalization here—cultivates understandings and assumptions of both a society’s insiders and their outsiders. Such stereotyping can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, how one dresses could be a clear indication of an outsider position; yet, on the other hand, it could also be used against an insider, as not being insider enough.
Why does any of this matter? How we speak, how we dress, how we judge other people? It matters because these factors are what we use to put up invisible borders. Those whom we accept within our friend groups, our group messages, our Facebook and Instagram feeds, etc. Merely wearing headphones on public transportation could be considered as performing a border: one is listening to their music, the border blocks out the rest of the world. Whom one accepts as a Facebook friend compared to those they don’t signify a personal border– a border that extends even further between those friends allowed to appear in one’s feed versus those one “hides.” Social media allows us to border what we see, hear, and read. You don’t like Fox News? Just block it. Did you disagree with that friend’s political post? Just unfriend them.
We police personal borders in a multiplicity of ways, and in the world of advanced technology and social media, new borders we never even imagined are emerging. Have you ever considered the two-party system as border separating American citizens? And even further, isn’t the voice of an “academic” bracketed off, identified for its particularly dense use of language (only partially serious with this), a certain application of language that only we as academics can understand? Dialectic. Zeitgeist. Adumbrate. Vituperate. Pernicious. Lacuna.
I’ve been called a snob on more than one occasion for my academics, a background that stands in stark contrast to my Montana upbringing. I grew up in a small town in rural Montana with a graduating class of 23 students. In the past, I’ve resented this association, but thinking through it, I wonder: do I create an invisible border with my “academic talk?” How are we to have a conversation if all we do is speak, and no one listens? Is our work in academia helping if really only a small circle of people can engage with it?
2020 is an election year, and regardless of your party affiliations, I encourage you to engage in conversation. Does your family insist that Bernie is a socialist? Then discuss and converse about what socialism means, for each person, in a way that each person can understand.
Stereotypes exist. A multiplicity of invisible borders exists across the United States in a variety of forms ranging from speech, education, dress, religion, etc. But we are all American. Let’s talk to each other again. Listen and learn from our differences.
Kathryn Agnes Huether is a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology with a graduate minor in Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is currently an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her dissertation examines the myriad of Holocaust ‘voices’ specifically for sonic qualities and their resulting effects.
 Judges 12:6