Did you know that there are words which physically cannot be pronounced by speakers of other languages? And that these words can be used to identify such people in critical situations? These words have been used for millennia, effectively helping to identify enemy spies.

Such words — and a custom related to them — are called shibboleths.

Biblical origins

The very word shibboleth is very interesting in its own right. It neither looks nor sounds like a linguistic term. Instead, it evokes thoughts of ancient cultures or perhaps old traditions that trace back to times preceding our modern civilization.

As a matter of fact, both notions are correct.

  • The use of the word “shibboleth” comes from an account in the Old Testament, which was written between 1200 and 165 BCE. At that time, two tribes of Israel were at war. Towards the end a third tribe got mixed in, complicating things. To differentiate members of the victorious tribe from those of the third tribe who just wanted part of the spoils, individuals were asked to pronounce the word shibboleth. One tribe pronounced the word shibboleth with an SH sound, and the other with an S sound. This distinction made it possible to tell who was who. (See Judges 11-12).
  • At the same time, it is also a legitimate linguistic term that is used by scholars internationally. Shibboleths now refer to specific words that cannot be correctly pronounced by the speakers of another language. They are typically used as a sort of password, meant to distinguish one group of people from another. As we saw in the Biblical story, shibboleths come in handy during wars — especially in order to figure out who might be an enemy spy.

Given the Biblical origins of the term, it’s clear that the word itself comes from Hebrew. Originally, the word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת) referred to the part of a plant that bears grain, such as the head of a stalk of wheat or rye. Of note, this original meaning has largely been eclipsed in favor of the word's linguistic usage.

Bavarian Cornfield
Photo by Evi Radauscher / Unsplash

Another less common meaning of the word is “torrent” or “flow.” This meaning, that of a “special password,” may perhps be understood as referring to an uninterrupted flow of speech: the type of speech where it would be very noticable if you tripped over an unpronounceable word.

Modern usages

In our modern-day world, we are not as exposed to warfare as our ancestors were. Therefore, today we mostly use this word not in its original sense but with other, more peaceful nuances. For example, the word shibboleth can be used to refer to any in-group "coded" word or phrase that may distinguish members of a certain group from outsiders. Furthermore, it does not necessarily have to do with hostility or rivalry. Sometimes, this word simply serves as a synonym of the words jargon or slang, which are also words that primarily get used by members of a specific group or subculture.

Another application of the term can be found in the IT community. There, a shibboleth is a specific sort of a password that allows members of a particular community to access an online resource without needing to reveal their actual identity.

Additionally, the term can be used pejoratively to refer to the process in which a symbol loses its original meaning, leading to a peculiar situation where a particular group of people are more familiar with the ceremonial/decorative purpose of a symbol than its actual meaning. This usage was suggested by Nobel Prize-laureate economist Paul Samuelson in 1956, where he used the term to refer to ideas in which “the means becomes the end, and the letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit.” While perhaps not perfect, the birth of this definition should make senes: when people today think of the word shibboleth, they think of it as meaning a type of password... but it really refers to a part of a plant.

A few examples

History holds many examples of shibboleths in use. For instance, in the days of Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from Dutch people. The letters "sch" in Dutch are pronounced as the letter "s" and the digraph "ch," making the consonant pair [sx], while in German they are pronounced as the trigraph "sch," pronounced [ʃ]. This difference in pronunciation would make it clear who was German and who was Dutch.

Bend man
Photo by Marten Newhall / Unsplash

Another World War II example, many German speakers were unfamiliar with the English language back in the 1940's. They could not pronounce English words containing a “w,” as that letter is pronounced as [v] in German. This allowed British and American allied troops to sniff out Germans from within their ranks.

A more recent (and peaceful) shibboleth example can be found in the Oceania region. There, the phrase “fish and chips” highlights differences between the accents of people from Australia and New Zealand. The short-i vowel sound is uttered differently in each country, making the phrase sound more like “feesh and cheeps” when said by an Australian, or “fush and chups” when pronounced with a New Zealand accent.

Bonus: "furtive" shibboleths

A “furtive shibboleth” is a sort of a phrase or an expression recognized by a member of a particular group that serves to distinguish the speaker from non-members of the in-group. For example, during World War II, a gay American sailor might refer to himself as “the friend of Dorothy,” referring to their fondness of Judy Garland’s performance in “The Wizard of Oz.” Back then, the movie was particularly popular among members of LGBTQ+-community, so this phrase would tip a knowing listener off that the speaker was gay.

A similar phenomenon can be encountered among modern-day gay men in Russian-speaking countries, who often refer to each other as “guys in the know.”


All in all

Shibboleths represent an interesting and very ancient phenomenon, one that is still in use today. Who knows, maybe you use them, too, without realizing?

As for now, that’s it for today, folks. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you did, stay tuned for the updates, as a new piece will follow up soon! Have a nice day, see you later, and bye!

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