The perejil shibboleth

“Is it true about the parsley, Your Excellency? That to distinguish Dominicans from Haitians you made all the blacks say perejil? And the ones who couldn’t pronounce it properly had their heads cut off?” “I’ve heard that story.” Trujillo shrugged. “It’s just idle gossip.”

Trebots @ Sunday March 27th 2005 18:54

You may remember how the word Perejil (an island called Parsley) divided Spain into patriots and traitors following a Moroccan invasion in Aznar's autumn. Here's a passage from Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) in which dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo's US Marine trainer in the Dominican National Police, Simon Gittleman, has returned to Ciudad de Trujillo/Santo Domingo de Guzmán to receive an award for his services in the propaganda war against Kennedy and the communists. Gittleman wants to know more about the 1937 massacre of Haitian (migrant) labourers which established Trujillo's bloody reputation:

"Is it true about the parsley, Your Excellency? That to distinguish Dominicans from Haitians you made all the blacks say perejil? And the ones who couldn't pronounce it properly had their heads cut off?"
"I've heard that story." Trujillo shrugged. "It's just idle gossip."

A poem by Rita Dove which impressed the Clinton White House tells it another way:

the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother's smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R's
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,
mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R!

Although Dove claims to have researched her linguistics, I think she may be confusing Haitians with their close neighbours, the Japanese. This short phonology says that

/r/ in Haitian Creole is not pronounced like English /r/ at all. Before rounded vowels it is pronounced [w] and is written that way, e.g., wouj 'red'. In other cases it is pronounced as a velar[F].

This Haitian Creole dictionary's version of perejil--pèsi--suggests that that, if the story is more than idle gossip, Michele Wucker (Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, 1999, sourced here) may be closer to the truth:

For Haitians away from their homes, in the streets or in the fields, the soldiers applied a simple test. Since Haitians are considerably darker than most Dominicans, soldiers would accost a man or woman with dark skin. Holding up sprigs of parsley, Trujillo's men queried their prospective victims: 'Como se llama ésto?' 'What is this thing called?' The terrified victim's fate lay in his pronunciation of the answer. For Haitians, whose Kreyol language uses a wide, flat 'R', it is difficult to pronounce the trilled 'R' in the Spanish word for parsley, 'perejil.' If the word came out as the Haitian 'pe'sil,' or a bastardized Spanish 'pewehí' the victim was condemned to die.

Not a few Spanish Republicans were welcomed to the Dominican Republic by Trujillo following their defeat in the Spanish civil war. I don't know, however, whether the Spanish right and left differ in their ability to roll their Rs.

  • José María Aznar (20) José María Alfredo Aznar López (Spanish pronunciation: [xoˈse maˈɾi.a alˈfɾeðo aθˈnar ˈlopeθ]; (born 25 February 1953) served as the Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004. He is on the board of directors of News Corporation.
  • Mario Vargas Llosa (6) Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa (/ˈvɑrɡəs ˈjoʊsə/; Spanish: [ˈmaɾjo ˈβaɾgas ˈʎosa]; born March 28, 1936) is a Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, essayist, college professor, and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • Natural history (517) Natural history is the research and study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study.
  • Politics of Spain (162)
  • Rita Dove (1) Rita Frances Dove (born August 28, 1952) is an American poet and author.
  • Spain (1622)
  • Spanish literature (153)
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  1. kalebeul » Filibusters and boats on the Vlie
    June 8th 2005 21:28

    [...] ve heard this kind of thing happening in Spain, but I can’t remember where. However, it does turn up in Cuba, where pirates used to hang around in large numbers [...]

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    December 21st 2009 15:08

    [...] More evidence that our /l/ and /r/ may constitute a single phoneme for Spanish speakers: At Starbucks they always write your name on the cup so that the coffee machine operative can say “Have a nice day, [your name]!” When I give the name “Trevor” it often gets converted into “Trébol”, so this evening I said “Trébol” and the adorable Cuban behind the bar carefully wrote “Trévor”. [...]


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