Have you ever heard the word “shibboleth?” Does it look a little weird to you? Does it seem like a word you’d never be able to pronounce? Well, that’s actually the whole idea. A shibboleth is a word that is used to distinguish native speakers of a language from non-native speakers; shibboleths have a sound or combination of sounds that are extremely difficult for learners of the language to pronounce.
The term comes all the way from biblical times. According to the story, there were two tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, who spoke two different dialects. The Gileadite word “shibboleth” was almost impossible for the Ephraimites to pronounce, because the Ephraimite dialect did not have the “sh” sound — just the “s.” So, when the war broke out between the two tribes and the Gileadites wanted to kill all of the Ephraimites, they used this word as a tool. Gileadites would ask people to pronounce the word “shibboleth,” and based on a person’s pronunciation, they’d know whether he or she was an enemy. If the person pronounced the “sh” sound, they were a Gileadite and therefore they were safe. On the other hand, if the person could only make the “s” sound, the Gileadites knew they were in the presence of an Ephraimite and they would kill him or her.
Though the origins of this word are pretty violent, the term can still be relevant today. As a learner of English, are there shibboleths that you feel you can’t pronounce properly? Do you think people know that you’re not a native speaker because of the way you say certain words? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!
Maya is a Pedagogy and Research summer associate at Voxy. She recently graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic. She loves not only learning foreign languages, but also learning all about the different languages of the world and what they have in common. Maya is passionate about sharing her love for languages with others and watching as more and more people become empowered by the knowledge of another language.