For those unfamiliar with the meaning of the word “shibboleth,” in its modern application it is most commonly used to signify a word, a custom, or a belief that distinguishes a particular class or group of people. According to its origin, however, it applied specifically to the pronunciation of certain words, which helped to identify users as part of a particular tribe or subculture. But by extension, as well, it can refer to a diet, a fashion, or even certain cultural values or a culture touchstone (i.e., specific words or phrases etc.) that would serve a distinguishing purpose, in order to help those in the group know who the insiders are, and to differentiate them from those who are outside the group.
The term comes form a Biblical passage and refers specifically to Chapter 12, verses 5 and 6, of the Book of Judges. I quote here from the Douay-Rheims translation: “The Galaadites took the fords of the Jordan toward Ephraim. When any of the fleeing Ephraimites said, ‘Let me pass,’ the men of Galaad would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he answered, ‘No!’ they would ask him to say ‘Shibboleth.’ If he said ‘Sibboleth,’ not being able to give the proper pronunciation, they would seize him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell at that time.”
Now, given the marked Old Testament tendency toward hyperbole, let’s say only a tenth of that number were actually killed at the fords of the Jordan. Still, that means forty-two hundred Ephraimites, which is a lot of people, were put to the sword that day because they could not distinguish between “s” and “sh.”
One of the most famous shibboleths in modern art is the well-known giant crack in the floor of the Tate Modern in New York City. Created by the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo, it is actually called “Shibboleth,” and symbolically represents the dividing line between all of the categorizing that we so love to do in society, between the wealthy and the poor, the old and the young, the able and the disabled, the gays and the straights, and of course among all of the races represented in the human family. Curiously, a number of people have tripped and fallen and injured themselves on this crack, even though it is only a foot wide at its broadest point, which leaves us to wonder whether this kind of blind clumsiness is actually a “plant,” used to graphically and literally demonstrate how again and again we stumble over such divisions in our everyday lives.
Closer to the original story of distinguishing between warring groups during battle, U. S. soldiers used the word “lollapalooza” as a shibboleth during World War II. As the story goes, those fighting in the Pacific theater would employ this word in order to challenge the identity of someone whom they encountered in the jungle. The idea, of course, was that speakers of Japanese have a famous difficulty distinguishing between the English sounds associated with the letters “l” and “r.” Whether this actually happened or not, it does fit well with the original Biblical story, sadly to the point that, if the word came back with its first two syllables pronounced as “rorra” instead of “lolla,” then the order was given “to open fire without waiting to hear the remainder!”
Closer to home, and decidedly less deadly, I sometimes have my own issues with various shibboleths. I moved to California many years ago, but still retain something of my upstate New York accent; or so I am told anyway. And sometimes my old-fashioned usage of words.
My partner, for example, who was born and, for the most part, raised in California, always cringes when I refer to the front room of our house as “the parlor.’ He says that parlor is an old-fashioned term, and that anyway California houses do not have parlors. Sometimes, I admit just to be contrary, I reply that in fact they do; it’s that room in the front of the house with the couch and the easy chairs, where we don’t usually sit, except when company comes over. So, you see, this is both a regional and an ageist shibboleth!
And here’s a true story that happened to me that refers to a pronunciation shibboleth. Years ago, before I retired and while I was still working at California State University, Long Beach, I was on a committee that met regularly. There was a faculty member on the committee whose first name was Dawn. Now, it happened that Dawn was absent one day from the meeting, and the chair of the committee asked me if I would serve on a particular subcommittee with someone whom I heard as “Don.” Being a cooperative fellow, of course I said I would, but I inquired as to who this “Don” person was. I couldn’t recall a single man with that name on the committee. The chair looked at me in a puzzled sort of way, but patiently replied that he meant “Don” and then he gave the last name of the individual whom I knew well. I too sat nonplussed for a moment, and then the light finally dawned (so to speak), and I said: “Oh, you mean Dawn, not Don!” Everyone laughed and told me what an “Easterner” I still was, even after all these years. In this case, the shibboleth came down to a matter of actual meaning, that is, the ability to distinguish between a male and a female name. By the way, I still think that I’m right about my pronunciation of this particular name, and of the event that takes place at the beginning of each day.
There are actually lots of these, what linguists refer to as “minimal pairs,” that is, two words that sound very much alike, but which differ mostly in the pronunciation of the vowel lying in between two consonants. Very often, these too are shibboleths. Take, for example, the distinction at least in my mind between the famous “pin” and “pen.” Where I come from (originally anyway), these are two very distinct phonemes. But an old friend of mine, who came from the South, used to tell me that the way the two words were distinguished between where he came from was to inquire whether you meant “a writin’ “pen” or a stickin’ “pin.”
So, shibboleths can be sticky and funny, but as we have also seen, they can be dangerous and even deadly, as well. It all comes down yet once again to that insistent, stubborn, perverse, recalcitrant, infuriating, stiff-necked, and sometimes downright perilous need human beings have to make distinctions between one another. Sometimes, of course, we have to admit it can be useful to differentiate between friend and foe. But not, for God’s sake, in the parlor, and not, please, with pen in hand at the dawn of the day.