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What is a Shibboleth?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A shibboleth is a unique practice which can be used to distinguish between different ethnic, social, cultural, and regional groups. Most commonly, people use this term in reference to language, talking about specific words and methods of pronunciation which are unique. However, a shibboleth can take a variety of forms, from a shared memory of a common experience like going to the same college to a specific mode of dress.

This term has its roots in the Bible. There's a story in the Book of Judges in which there is a battle between the tribe of Ephraim and the people of Gilead. The Gileadites are victorious, and they take control of the river Jordan to prevent the Ephraimites from crossing over. To tell the difference between native Gileadites and Ephraimites pretending to be from Gilead, anyone who wishes to cross the river is presented with a test phrase: the Hebrew word for “torrent.” The people of Gilead used a “sh” pronunciation, saying “shibboleth,” while the Ephraimites said “sibboleth,” lacking the soft “sh,” and were instantly identifiable.

Any number of examples of shibboleths can be found across the world. In the Arabic-speaking world, for example, Egyptians do not use the hard “J” sound common to other Arabic speakers, so they say many key words very differently. British speakers talk about “shed-yooling” something, while Americans “skej-ool.” People from some parts of the world refrain from eating tomatoes, viewing them with deep suspicion, while others relish them. In New York, you stand “on line,” while everywhere else in the English-speaking world, people stand “in line.” Mammal owners recognize each other by the common shibboleth of pet hair on garments, while people who have had the same surgery identify each other by their scars.

Historically, shibboleths have often been used as passphrases, just like in the Bible. Soldiers in the same unit, for example, might use an obscure piece of native slang as a shibboleth. Shibboleths can also play a more subtle social and cultural role. For example, people with certain accents often have access to higher social circles because they share shibboleths in common with people in those circles, while people with accents associated with the lower classes are excluded.

Customs are exaggerated in some circles to make people feel more connected to each other. Many colleges and universities, for example, have unique slang terms, phrases, and other customs which graduates can use to readily identify each other. Garments such as school ties may be shibboleths, acting like secret codes to convey information without explicitly stating it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Jan 17, 2015

@MrsPramm - It actually makes me think of the movie with Brad Pitt where there are some American soldiers trying to infiltrate the Nazis and they are given away when one of them uses the wrong fingers to order a drink. I think it's common to take that sort of thing for granted until you notice the way that others do it.

By MrsPramm — On Jan 17, 2015

@Iluviaporos - That's supposed to be true of England as well, and probably of other countries although I'm not familiar those variations. I've heard that you can tell a North Islander from a South Islander in New Zealand if you are familiar with their accent.

But I've got to say that I don't think it's necessarily true that people will notice this kind of stuff. When I was overseas for study one of my new friends played a joke on me for several weeks where she had found a book of slang words from my country and was using them in her conversations with me and waiting to see if I would notice. And I never actually did notice. I just assumed that those were basic English slang words, not regional variations.

I imagine using shibboleth to identify people is only really done in areas where it's common for two different groups to mingle and they want to be able to distinguish between them (rightly or wrongly).

By lluviaporos — On Jan 16, 2015

This is pretty interesting. The shibboleth that immediately jumps to my mind is the different ways that people around the United States will order a soda. Some people will ask for a soda, some will ask for a Coke, some will ask for pop and so forth. I've seen charts that identify the different areas where people will ask for different things.

Of course, that's only one of the more obvious signs, there are supposedly ways of identifying an English speaker from the United States to within something like a ten mile radius just by listening to a few sentences of conversation.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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