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A shibboleth (// or //) is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people. It also refers to features of language, and particularly to a word or phrase whose pronunciation identifies a speaker as belonging to a particular group.
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 grain or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent". 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 BCE), 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-crowd" 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.
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." 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."
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. The Dutch used the name of the port town 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]).
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. 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".
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 estimated that 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre.
Before the Guldensporenslag (Battle of the Golden Spurs), in May 1302 the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges. They identified Frenchmen based on their inability to pronounce the Dutch phrase "schild en vriend" ("Shield and Friend"), or possibly "'s Gilden vriend" ("Friend of the Guilds").
Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries ( example (help·info)) means "Butter, rye bread and green cheese, who 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.
In the film Inglourious Basterds, English and American soldiers, attempting to disguise themselves as Nazis, are exposed using a shibboleth. When an English soldier speaks with a German in a tavern, he holds up three fingers to indicate the number three. However, Germans would have held up the thumb with two fingers to indicate the number three.
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