From Academic Kids


For the Internet2 research project, see Shibboleth (Internet2).

Shibboleth is the Hebrew word that literally means "ear of wheat". In the Hebrew Bible, pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group whose dialect lacked a "sh" sound from members of a group whose dialect included such a sound. The consequences of getting it wrong were fatal:

And the Gileadites seized the passages of the Jordan before the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when those Ephraimites who had escaped said, "Let me go over," that the men of Gilead said unto him, "Art thou an Ephraimite?" 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 the Jordan; and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. (Judges 12:5-6, King James Version of the Bible)

Modern usage

Today, "shibboleth" refers to words and phrases that can be used in a similar way—to distinguish members of a group from outsiders. The word is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean specialized jargon, the proper use of which reveals speakers as members of a particular group or subculture. For example, people who regularly use words like "stfnal," "grok," "filk," and "gafiate" in conversation are likely members of science fiction fandom. Shibboleths can also be customs or practices, such as male circumcision.

Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort. For example, people about the same age tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years. Much the same is true of alumni of a particular school, to veterans of military service, and to other groups. Discussing such memories is a common way of bonding.

Some shibboleths

Below are listed various examples of shibboleths. Please note that there are many apocryphal shibboleths in existence, and that since, by definition, shibboleths rely on stereotypical pronunciation traits, they may not accurately describe the speech of all members of the group in question.

Shibboleths used in war

  • Scheveningen: Dutch people pronounce this word beginning with separate "s" [s] and "ch" [x]; a German would pronounce sch as (IPA). The Dutch Resistance used this to ferret out Nazi spies during World War II.
  • Höyryjyrä: (IPA ) Finnish soldiers in World War II would use this as a password, as none but a true Finnish native speaker could properly say this word, which contains the Finnish front vowels Ö, Y, and Ä in combination with the rolled R used in Finnish.
  • Yksi: There is a story about the Whites using "yksi" ("one") as a shibboleth in the Finnish Civil War during the invasion of Tampere. Communists were made to stand in line, and each one was asked to say "yksi". If the prisoner pronounced "juksi", mistaking the front vowel 'y' for an iotated 'u', he was a Russian foreign fighter and was shot. See Heikki Ylikangas, Tie Tampereelle, or Sami Suodenjoki, Venäläisten sotilaiden kohtalo Tampereen valtauksessa [1] (
  • The Spanish word perejil (parsley) was used as a shibboleth by Dominican Republic strongman Trujillo. See [2] (
  • Schild en vriend: On May 18, 1302, the people of Bruges killed the French occupants during a nocturnal surprise attack. They asked every suspicious person to say "schild en vriend" (shield and friend). The Flemings pronounced it with a separate "s" [s] and "ch" [x]" (see also "Scheveningen", earlier in this section); the French "sk". That way they could easily find the French. This day is known as the Brugse Metten.
  • ciciri: This was used by native Sicilians to ferret out Norman French soldiers in the late 1200s during an uprising against Norman rule. The Italian c and r were (and are) difficult for the French to pronounce.

Humorous shibboleths

  • Coax: Information technology professionals often pronounce this as "co-ax", short for "coaxial cable", instead of as the English word "coax".
  • Kurri etsi jarrua murkkukasasta: "Kurri sought for a brake in the ant pile." The Finnish phoneme rolled R [r] in general is considered a "shibboleth" between normality and various types of speech defects. Small children usually learn the phoneme /r/ last, using /l/ instead. Older children can trick them to say "kulli etsi Jallua mulkkukasasta", "The cock sought for a Jallu (porn magazine) in a pile of dicks."
  • Oachkatzlschwoaf is used to tell true Bavarians from non-natives, mostly northern Germans. Eekkattensteert is jokingly used by northern Germans to expose Bavarians. Both words mean "squirrel tail".

Shibboleths in fiction

  • Unionized: Isaac Asimov introduced this shibboleth that distinguishes chemists from non-chemists. When reading this word aloud with no context, a chemist will pronounce it "un-ionized", whereas a non-chemist will pronounce it "union-ized".
  • In his essay The Shibboleth of Fëanor, Tolkien describes how the Noldor elves change the sound th (IPA ) to s in the Quenya language. Strife occurs when the king's second wife adopts the name Indis (with an s) to emphasize her acceptance of Noldorin culture; however, king's son Fëanor considered this change to be an insult to his dead mother Therindë who had refused to be called Serindë.

Grammatical shibboleths

In the Victorian era, especially in Britain, the educated middle classes invented several shibboleths to distinguish them from the lower classes. One of these was pronouncing the gerund suffix -ing as it is spelled, rhyming with sing, whereas both the lower and upper classes pronounced it as -in, rhyming with sin. However, many of the shibboleths were grammatical. These were primarily taken from the rules of Latin grammar, and had not occurred in English prior to this time. For instance, in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive, because a Latin infinitive (such as vadere "to go") is a single word; therefore, prescriptivist grammarians decided that people should not split English infinitives either. (That is, to boldly go "should" be boldly to go or to go boldly, as if to go were a single word as it is in Latin.) Despite centuries of contrary use, this became a mark of a good education, and is still taught in schools. Other invented grammatical rules used as shibboleths include:

  • between you and I (more properly between you and me)
  • no final prepositions (which often provokes the ironic reply, falsely attributed to Churchill, that this is nonsense "up with which I will not put")
  • no verbless sentences (these are common in literature: Not so. Really?)
  • use different from rather than different than (different than has been well established in literature for centuries.)
  • no initial ands or buts (in literature, and and but can even begin a paragraph: But suppose all this is rubbish? or, And so it turns out ...)
  • use a possessive noun with a gerund: women's having the vote would be ... (actually, women having the vote is traditional usage)

Other shibboleths


  • Rødgrød med fløde : This is the standard Danish shibboleth, which exposes the speaker's skill of pronouncing the Danish vowels.
  • A æ u å æ ø i æ å : a well-known Danish vowels-only way of judging someone's ability to speak Jysk, the general dialect of Jutland. Often/usually practiced on visitors from Copenhagen. In standard Danish, the sentence would be Jeg er ude på øen i åen (I'm on the island in the stream).
  • Chuchichäschtli in Swiss German.

English shibboleths for native speakers

  • Fish and chips: Australians and New Zealanders sometimes tease each other on its pronunciation, usually as a joke. To Aussies, it sounds like Kiwis pronounce it "fush and chups", while Kiwis hear Aussies say "feesh and cheeps".
  • loch: Scottish people have been known to ask suspected English impersonators to say this (the Scottish word for a lake or fjord, which occurs in many placenames) since this includes the hard "ch" sound (voiceless velar fricative) not found in standard English. English people usually pronounce it "lock".
  • H: in Northern Ireland pronounced 'aitch' by Protestants, 'haitch' by Catholics.
  • Z: American English zee; Commonwealth English typically zed.
  • Southern United States: There are several noticeable differences between the stereotypical pronunciation of Southerners and those of other parts of the United States.
    • In many words, the syllables are lengthened or shortened, compared to standard American. For example, syrup becomes 'surp' (as one syllable) in Southern English; whereas other Americans pronounce it 'seer-up' (as two).
    • Pin: Some people from the Southern United States pronounce pen the way other Americans would pronounce pin. Furthermore, some have difficulty hearing the difference between the two.
  • Orange: Put as a test by Californians to distinguish natives from rustbelt or New York immigrants, who tend to pronounce the initial vowel harshly and the entire word as a single syllable (arange).
  • About: U.S. commentators have drawn attention to the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation of about. Supposedly, Canadians pronounce it ah-boot, while American pronounce it uh-bowt. In fact, many Canadians feel that the shibboleth is more reflective of Toronto pronunciation than a general Canadian pronunciation. (In reality, the pronunciation is closer to "ah-boat.") See Canadian raising.

English shibboleths for non-native speakers

  • Vespene gas (a fictitious gas from the game Starcraft): Arabs tend to mispronounce this phrase, since Arabic lacks v, p, and g.
  • Ripley/ripply: If any distinction is made between the two words by a native speaker (rip-lee vs. rip-ul-ee), it will probably be lost by a native speaker of Japanese. Either pronunciation would be very difficult to say properly as the English distinction between the R and L sounds is not present in Japanese. Furthermore, Japanese syllables must terminate in either a vowel or n, thus many Japanese would pronounce both words as ri-pu-ri-i, with both r sounds being somewhere between a standard English r and l.

Computer security

The general concept of shibboleth is to test something, and based on that response to take a particular course of action. This principle is used in computer security. The most commonly seen usage of this is logging on to your computer with a password. If you enter the correct password you can log on to your computer, if you enter an incorrect password, you can go no further.

There are various classes of computer security-related shibboleth.

  • Class 1: Something you know; perhaps a password or another fact.
  • Class 2: Something you have; a card or a physical tag of some kind.
  • Class 3: Something you are; a biometric feature such as a fingerprint or an iris scan.

In the future, computer security is likely to combine various classes of shibboleth, in order to be much more secure than the standard class 1 approach of today.

See also

fy:Tongbrekkerssechje nl:Schibbolet


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