Video-Fix: Shibboleth! Show me how you say it and I will tell you who you are

September 22, 2019 10:24 am


The Shibboleth [/ˈʃɪbəˌlɛθ/] is “a word containing  one or more sounds difficult to be pronounced from a  non native speaker, through which is possible to recognize people, who do not belong to our own ethnic or linguistic group”.

It started to be used in the XIX century thanks to Lord Byron’s satiric poem Don Juan.

In Jewish shibboleth (שבולת) means “spike” and represents a key word in an episode of the Old Testament (Judges, 12, 4-7). It was in fact used as a stratagem to identify and suppress enemy fugitives who were unable to pronounce the initial deaf prepalatal fricative / ʃ / (as in skiing) and replaced it with the deaf alveolar fricative / s / (as in si):

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead.

Shibboleth in English

In English shibboleth has also other meanings: it can indicate a password (password), a test of belonging or another discriminating criterion. It can also have a derogatory connotation and describe outdated and outmoded ideas that characterize a particular social group but which are considered irrelevant by anyone else. In Talk the Talk there are several references to shibboleth lists used in various contexts, such as Foucault That Noise: The Terror of Highbrow Mispronunciation.

In the historical anecdotes of List of shibbolets there is also an Italian reference: apparently during the Sicilian Vespers at the end of the thirteenth century the rebels would have identified the French soldiers compelling them to pronounce the word cìciri (cecils), which was difficult both for the ‘r’ and for slippery accentuation.

Funny bonus for Italians

Mi perdonino i lettori per questa improvvisa escursione indirizzata esclusivamente ai miei compatrioti. Menzionare questo sempreverde della comicitá italiana era d’obbligo.




Shibboleth, un’origine cruenta, Terminologia etc., [Accessed date: 16/09/2019] (original post in Italian)

Judges 12,  BibleGateway, [Accessed date: 16/09/2019]


Translated and rearranged by Cosimo Palma

I studied philosophy, historical philosophy, philosophical history and history in the redundant Naples, computational linguistics and informatics in the city of Marx.
Language enthusiast and chess player in my free time, until the end of September I will spend my busy time in the Tower A of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, trying to do my best in the communication as well as in the operational department of the Terminology unit.

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