A shibboleth (//1 or //2) is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain3 or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent".45 The modern usage derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.
Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:
Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, 'Let me cross,' the men of Gilead would ask, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'No,' they then said, 'Very well, say "Shibboleth" (שבלת).' If anyone said, "Sibboleth" (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
In numerous cases of conflict between groups speaking different languages or dialects, one side used shibboleths in a way similar to the above-mentioned Biblical use, i.e., to discover hiding members of the opposing group. Modern researchers use the term "shibboleth" for all such usages, whether or not the people involved were using it themselves.
Today, in American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any "in-group" word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is less well recognized in British English and possibly some other English-speaking groups. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.
The term shibboleth can also be extended, as in the discipline of semiotics, to describe non-linguistic elements of culture such as diet, fashion and cultural values.
Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort. For example, people about the same age who are from the same nation tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years. One-hit wonders prove particularly effective. Much the same is true of alumni of a particular school, veterans of military service, and other groups. Discussing such memories is a common way of bonding. In-jokes can be a similar type of shared-experience shibboleth.
Yet another more pejorative usage involves underlining the fact that the original meaning of a symbol has in effect been lost and that the symbol now serves merely to identify allegiance, being described as nothing more than a "shibboleth".
Nobel Prize-laureate economist Paul Samuelson applied the term "shibboleth" in works including Foundations of Economic Analysis to an idea for which "the means becomes the end, and the letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit."6 Samuelson admitted that "shibboleth" is an imperfect term for this phenomenon, and sometimes used "fetish" as a synonym, though he complained that the latter "has too pejorative a ring."7
Shibboleths have been used by different subcultures throughout the world at different times. Regional differences, level of expertise and computer coding techniques are several forms that shibboleths have taken.
During the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers used knowledge of baseball to determine if others were fellow Americans or if they were German infiltrators in American uniforms.8 The Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from the Dutch ("Sch" in Dutch is analyzed as the letter "s" and the digraph "ch", producing the consonant cluster [sx], while in German it is analyzed as the trigraph "sch," pronounced ʃ).910
During World War II, some United States soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people often pronounce the letter L as R or confuse Rs with Ls; the word is also an American colloquialism that even a foreign person fairly well-versed in American English would probably mispronounce or be unfamiliar with.11 In George Stimpson's A Book about a Thousand Things, the author notes that, in the war, Japanese spies would often approach checkpoints posing as American or Filipino military personnel. A shibboleth such as "lollapalooza" would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would "open fire without waiting to hear the remainder".12
In October 1937 the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a shibboleth to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre although more recent scholarship and the lack of evidence mass graves puts the actual total as low as 1000.13
The legend goes that before the Guldensporenslag (Battle of the Golden Spurs) in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges, an act known as the Brugse Metten.14 They identified Frenchmen based on their inability to pronounce the Flemish phrase schilt ende vriend (shield and friend), or possibly 's Gilden vriend (friend of the Guilds). However, many Mediaeval Flemish dialects did not contain the cluster sch- either (even today's Kortrijk dialect has sk-), and Mediaeval French rolled the r just as Flemish did.15
Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gijn oprjochte Fries ( example (help·info)) means "Butter, rye bread and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is not a genuine Frisian" was used by the Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia during a Frisian rebellion (1515–1523). Ships whose crew could not pronounce this properly were usually plundered and soldiers who could not were beheaded by Donia himself.16
During the Westgate shopping mall attack in September 2013, the gunmen reportedly weeded out their victims from those they believed to have been "true Muslim" based on whether they could name the Islamic prophet Muhammad's mother (Aminah).17
In an episode of The West Wing titled "Shibboleth", President Bartlet becomes certain that a group of Chinese asylum seekers are indeed Christians in faith, when their representative uses the word shibboleth during their meeting.18
In the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a British film-critic turned spy, is exposed as an infiltrator in a German tavern when he orders three drinks by holding up three fingers (as a Brit would do), rather than a thumb and two fingers (as a German would do), sparking a climactic firefight.
- Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin
- List of shibboleths
- Parsley Massacre
- Pons asinorum
- U and non-U English
- "shibboleth". Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). 1989.
- "shibboleth". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
- Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch, Sixth Edition and "Schibboleth". Meyers Lexikon online.
- "shibboleth". American Heritage Dictionary, also sometimes rye, Fourth Edition. "shibboleth". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (this latter meaning is not in use in Modern Hebrew)
- Cf. Isaiah 27:12.
- Samuelson, Paul A. (1977). "When it is ethically optimal to allocate money income in stipulated fractional shares". Natural Resources, Uncertainty, and General Equilibrium Systems: Essays in Memory of Rafael Lusky. New York: Academic Press. pp. 175–195. Retrieved 2011-02-03.
- Samuelson, Paul A. (February 1956). "Social Indifference Curves". Quarterly Journal of Economics. Retrieved 2011-02-03.
- McGuire, Mark (June 1994). Baseball played a special role during World War II. Baseball Digest. p. 67.
- "Zonder ons erbij te betrekken" Retrieved on 23 december 2011
- Corstius, H. B. (1981) Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde, Querido's Uitgeverij, Amsterdam. Retrieved on 23 december 2011
- US Army & Navy, 1942. HOW TO SPOT A JAP Educational Comic Strip, (from US govt's POCKET GUIDE TO CHINA, 1st edition). Retrieved 10-10-2007
- Stimpson, George W. (1946). A Book about a Thousand Things. Harper & Brothers. p. 51.
- Vega, Bernardo (10 October 2012). "La matanza de 1937". La lupa sin trabas (in Spanish). Retrieved 7 January 2014. "Durante los meses de octubre y diciembre de 1937, fuentes haitianas, norteamericanas e inglesas ubicadas en Haití dieron cifras que oscilaron entre 1,000 y 12,168"
- Devries, Kelly. Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th Century. N.p.: Boydell, 1996. Print.
- Although the website Language Log: Born on the 11th of July says that the /sχ/ cluster in schild that makes it difficult for French-speakers to pronounce had not yet developed in the 14th century, the phrase "scilt en vrient" is referenced in primary sources such as the Chronique of Gilles Li Muisis as distinguishing French from Flemish.
- "Greate Pier fan Wûnseradiel" (in West Frisian). Gemeente Wûnseradiel. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
- Trevor Parry-Giles; Shawn J. Parry-Giles (2006). The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U. S. Nationalism. University of Illinois Press. p. 101.
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