There’s a popular beach in the Netherlands called Scheveningen. And dollars to doughnuts if you don’t know Dutch you just read that word wrong. Well, the Dutch are nice, tolerant people. They won’t kill you for it.
Not now they won’t, anyway. Back in World War II they might have – they or the Americans or Brits. The story goes that if a person was trying to pass as Dutch but screwed up the pronunciation of this name, he was assumed to be a German spy, and shot. A little lifesaving phonemics, then: the opening sch is not like “sh” or even like “sk”; in Dutch, the s is [s] and the ch is like the ch in German ach (in the International Phonetic Alphabet this is written [x]). The ng does not have a hard [g] sound at the end of it, and, unlike in German, the v is [v], not [f]. As well, the final n is often dropped. And the accent is on the first syllable.
So why am I talking about Scheveningen when the word we’re tasting is shibboleth? Because Scheveningen was a shibboleth in the narrowest sense: a pronunciation test for group membership, failure of which could have fatal consequences. Here’s the original shibboleth story from the Bible, Judges 12:4–6, in the King James Version (I use it here because it was from this version that the word entered the language; otherwise I would use a translation that was more accurate to current English and more in tune with the scholarship that has happened in the last four centuries):
Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites. And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were 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 Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
My, my: a thin line between elocution and execution! Two voiceless fricatives, one alveolar, the other alveopalatal. Say one and then the other and you can see how close they are. If you think it should be obvious that the one is not the other, consider that Polish, for instance, has two sounds that pretty much both sound like “sh” to anglophones but are easily distinguishable to people who have been making and hearing them all their lives – as easily as we tell “s” from “sh”. But at least if you greet Ryszard or Kasia the wrong way they probably won’t kill you.
Failure to know in-group shibboleths can of course lead to a sort of social death, or exclusion anyway. If you say claret as “cla-ray” rather than “clair-it,” for instance, you may be seen by some oenophiles as a tyro or a poseur, a veritable Florence Bucket. In any in-group, if you don’t know this or that bit of vocabulary, well, you’re marked, possibly without even knowing it – and if you do use it correctly, then it can be your bona fides. Marketers and speechwriters like to use the term dog whistle refer to a phrase that seems unremarkable to most people but has a special reference or effect for a particular group; a dog whistle in this sense is also a shibboleth. And even a certain mode of dress or other distinguishing mark or behaviour – or idea to which one is expected to give allegiance – can, in the broader sense, be a shibboleth.
Does this word have a blunt, brutal sound to you, perhaps like clubbing someone in a cloth sack with a shillelagh? So much the better, since shibboleths can be used as blunt weapons of exclusion in many contexts. And if you think of sabbath, well, some of those exclusions are certainly religiously based. But think, too, of gibberish; many of them are grammatical – we do judge people by the language they use.
It works at different levels in different ways, too. For instance, while ain’t may put you out in the cold in one group, it may be part of a style of speech that proves your credibility in another group. And hypercorrections can play into this as well: some people will think that if you say “between you and me” or “take a picture of my friends and me,” you’re poorly educated. But move a level farther up in knowledge of English, and usage of “between you and I” and “take a picture of my friends and I” is a sure mark of an inferior user. And how often we seem so ready to press the “Smite” button on those who use “bad English”! I’m almost surprised this word didn’t get backformed into a verb when it could: I shibbol, thou shibbolest, he shibboleth. Meaning “test and smite,” I suppose.
By the way, since you’re probably wondering what shibboleth meant: “stream in flood.” It could also have meant “ear of corn,” but since the action took place at a ford, scholars reckon it was the watery sense. To my ears, the word happens to sound also like a rush (or splash) of water, or like walking through ears of corn. But, then, so does sibboleth.