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A shibboleth is a word that some people pronounce in a characteristic way, so they can be recognised by listening carefully. The word goes back to the Bible, Judges 12: 6, (King James Bible "Authorized Version", Pure Cambridge Edition) that reads:
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.

Many other shibboleth-episodes happened in the course of history: Between September 28 and October 8 1938 the Generalísimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, at the time dictator of the Dominican Republic, had his army kill around 15.000 of migrant Haitian sugar cane workers. Because the Dominican Republic has such a diversity of racial types living in harmony, the Haitians were identified for murder by their inability to pronounce the word "perejil" (Spanish for "parsley."). Some histories refer to this as The Parsley Massacre  The river where the bodies were dumped was known as Río Dajabón and fixed the frontier between the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti, it is now aptly known as Rio Masacre (Massacre River.)
Germans are apparently unable to pronounce the English word “squirrel”, or so is claimed: This could come in handy if ever Germans have to be identified (if suspected of spying, for instance. Or of Rechthaberei, if that in itself does not give them away).
But the point is: there is no translation of this word into Spanish or German. Despite the fact that both languages have a thorough Bible tradition. They should know the word, to be prepared against the concept lurking beneath.


Am 14.03.2014 um 05:48 von roland marti
i beg to disagree: german has shibboleth (or schibboleth) as well. and both in english and german it is a semitic loan. i used it myself in several of my articles and my colleagues had no problems understanding it. (if memory does not fail me the septuaginta translates the word, thus making the story incomprehensible.)
shibboleths seem to be far more common than is usually known. it seems that a shibboleth could be deadly in the case of the sicilian vespers when the french soldiers were asked to pronounce "ciciri". in a poem the results is expressed very succinctly: "ciciri" - "sisiri" - "a morti" (cf. jean-louis calvet, guerre des langues et politiques linguistiques, where the haiti episode is mentioned as well). another example is reported from poland during the german invasion in 1939 (Kurt Lück: Der Lebenskampf im deutsch-polnischen Grenzraum. Berlin 1940 (=Schriftenreihe der NSDAP, Gruppe VII, Bd. 4)). i suspect that shibboleths might have been used in the recent wars in yugoslavia as well.
shibboleths may of course be less deadly: one might think of tongue twisters (Strč prst skrz krk from czech) or of sound that are presumably unpronounceable for non-native speakers and may therefore be used to recognise foreigners. a point in case is swiss german "chuchichäschtli" (literally "kitchen cupboard").
Am 14.03.2014 um 06:40 von Jordi
Dear Mr. Marti,
thank you very much for your contribution to this post, I appreciate it very much. You are right: the word ¨Schibboleth¨ seems to exist indeed in German, though it is relatively uncommon. Most people I have asked do not know it, so I must congratulate you for the excellent general culture exhibited by your readers. On the other hand, it might be that they understood the word because they know it from English, were it seems to be more frequently used. I don´t know.

The word is still unknown in Spanish. The Spanish version of Wikipedia refers to shibboleth and explains its origin, but the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) does not list it as a Spanish word. Which is a pity.

BTW: With ¨chuchichäschtli¨ you bring to my mind the shibboleth in Friedrichs Dürrenmatts ¨Der Verdacht¨, where Kommissär Hans Bärlach confirms that Dr. Fritz Emmenbach - the suspect of nazi atrocities in a concentration camp - is indeed swiss, an important point in the argument. Thanks a lot for this old memory as well!
Am 15.03.2014 um 07:13 von Chris
Ich muß gestehen, dass ich das Wort shibboleth (oder Schibboleth) noch nie gehört oder gelesen habe. Nichts desto trotz ist 'unser' Schibboleth im Österreichischen (bzw. auch im süddeutschen Raum) der 'Oachkatzlschwoaf-Test' (siehe im www)
Am 15.03.2014 um 07:43 von Jordi
Wieder etwas dazugelernt! Vielen Dank, Chris! Ich werde nicht versuchen, das auszusprechen, aber ich finde es schon bemerkenswert, wie oft Eichhörnchen (bzw. Oachkatzl oder squirrel) bei Schibboleths eine Rolle spielen.
Am 30.03.2014 um 08:57 von Doro Schwarz
Für die Unterscheidung zwischen einem Deutschen und einem Niederländer wurde angeblich während des Krieges die korrekte Aussprache des Wortes Scheveningen benutzt, zumindest haben mir das meine Freundinnen erzählt.
Am 30.03.2014 um 09:52 von Jordi
Vielen Dank, Frau Schwarz! Wieder ein schönes Beispiel.

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