List of shibboleths

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Below are listed various examples of words and phrases that have been identified as shibboleths, a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.

Original shibboleth[edit]

The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which means the part of a plant containing grain, such as the head of a stalk of wheat or rye;[1][2][3] or less commonly (but arguably more appropriately)[a] "flood, torrent".[4][5]

The modern use derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect used a differently sounding first consonant. The difference concerns the Hebrew letter shin, which is now pronounced as [ʃ] (as in shoe).[6] In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead under the command of Jephthah inflicted a military defeat upon the invading tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the River Jordan back into their home territory, but the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. To identify and kill these Ephraimites, the Gileadites told each suspected survivor to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect resulted in a pronunciation that, to Gileadites, sounded like sibboleth.[6] In Judges 12:5–6 in the King James Bible, the anecdote appears thus (with the word already in its current English spelling):

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.

— Judges 12:5–6[7]

Shibboleths used in war and persecution[edit]


  • Schild en vriend: On 18 May 1302, the people of Bruges killed the French occupiers of the city during a nocturnal surprise attack. According to a famous legend, they stormed into the houses where they knew the tenants were forced to board and lodge French troops serving as city guards, roused every male person from his bed and forced him to repeat the challenge schild en vriend (shield and friend). The Flemings pronounced schild with a separate "s" /s/ and "ch" /x/". Flemings would pronounce vriend with a voiced v whereas French would render those as a voiceless f.
Every Frenchman who failed the test was stabbed on the spot, still in his nightgown. Because the signal for the uprising was the matins bells of the city's churches and monasteries, this became known as the Bruges Matins or Brugse Metten. Like the name of the massacre, the story may have been influenced by the Sicilian uprising mentioned below.
The problem with this legend is that in Medieval manuscripts of that time, a shield is referred to as "skilde" as in Norse and Norse-influenced English words. Therefore, it is sometimes said that the words must have been "'s gilden vriend" meaning "friend of the guilds." The combination of the 's and the g in "'s gilden" would be pronounced /sx/.[8]


  • Ciciri (chickpeas): This was used by native Sicilians to ferret out Angevin French soldiers in the late 13th century during the Sicilian Vespers, the uprising which freed the island from Angevin rule. Both the Italian soft c /tʃ/, and the Italian r, were (and are still) difficult for the French to pronounce as that sequence of sounds seldom appears in French; also, in French and Angevin, words are primarily stressed on the final syllable.[9]


Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries
  • Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries (example) (meaning "Butter, rye bread and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is not a genuine Frisian") was used by the Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia during a Frisian rebellion (1515–1523). Ships whose crew could not pronounce this properly were usually plundered and soldiers who could not were beheaded by Donia himself.[10]

Castilian Spanish–Latin-American Spanish[edit]


  • In the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, many Flemings "loste hir heedes at that tyme and namely they that koude nat say Breede and Chese, but Case and Brode."[12]


  • Yksi: Finnish for "one", used by the White Guard to separate Russians from Finns in the Finnish Civil War during the invasion of Tampere. Many of the Russians caught had changed to civilian clothing, so suspected people were rounded up, even from hospitals, and asked to say yksi [ˈyksi] (or made count to ten in Finnish). If the prisoner pronounced it [ˈjuksi], mistaking the front vowel 'y' for an iotated 'u' (ю), he was considered a Russian foreign fighter and was shot on the spot. Any Slav or Balt, Communist or not, was killed, including some members of the White Guard.[13]
  • Höyryjyrä: Finnish for "steamroller", used by the Finnish Army in the Second World War. This word is almost impossible to pronounce for anyone not skilled in Finnish, with the frontal 'ö' and 'y' and rolled 'r' [ˈhøy̯ryˌjyræ]. For Russian speakers, the leading 'h' is also difficult.[citation needed]

Spanish–French and Haitian Creole[edit]

  • Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo conducted a massacre of undocumented Haitian settlers along the Dominican–Haitian border. The action is known as the Parsley Massacre. Suspects not fluent in Spanish either did not know or could not properly pronounce the Spanish word perejil ("parsley"). The pronunciation of the word by Haitian citizens tended to be with a trilled r, unlike the native Spanish tapped r, and without the 'l' at the end of the word.[14]


  • During the Sumgait Pogrom, Azeri rioters targeted ethnic Armenians pulled from their homes and vehicles by asking them the Azeri word for hazelnut, fundukh, which Armenians typically pronounce with a [p] instead of an [f].[15]


  • Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn (Old Polish pronunciation: [ˈs̪ɔt͡ʃɛvit͡sʲa ˈkɔɫɔ ˈmʲɛlʲɛ ˈmɫɪn̪]), meaning "lentil, wheel, grinds [verb], mill": In 1312, the Polish Prince Ladislaus the Elbow-high quelled the Rebellion of wójt Albert in Kraków, populated mostly by Silesian, German and Czech citizens. Anyone over the age of 7 who could not pronounce these Polish words was put to death, ejected from the city or had their property confiscated. 'Ł' (then pronounced as a velarized alveolar lateral approximant, aka dark l) and dental [s̪] are both unlikely to be pronounced properly by Germans since they cannot make out the difference from their own sounds [l] and [s]. (The former was approximated by Germans as l, and has evolved now into a sound similar to English w).[16]


  • Following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, which occurred in an area with a high Korean population, there were rumors that the local Korean population poisoned the wells. The locals accosted random people with Japanese phrases that were difficult to pronounce for non-native speakers, resulting in the killings of ethnic Koreans. Many ethnic Chinese were also killed as they were also unable to correctly pronounce the shibboleths. An unforeseen consequence of the hysteria-induced killings was that some ethnic Japanese from outlying regions, such as Okinawa, were also killed as they had accents that sounded strange to the paranoid locals.[17] The phrase 15.50 Yen (十五円五十銭, Jūgoen gojissen) was one of the shibboleths used to Koreans, as pronouncing voiced consonants were difficult for them.[18]


  • Palianytsia: a type of Ukrainian bread. During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the word palianytsia (Ukrainian: паляниця, [pɐlʲɐˈnɪt͡sʲɐ]) became one of those proposed to use to identify Russian subversive reconnaissance groups, as it is unlikely to be pronounced properly by Russians due to different phonetics of the Russian language according to[19] On Russian state television, Russia-1 television host Olga Skabeyeva pronounced this word as "polyanitsa" and said that it means strawberry, confusing it with another Ukrainian word, polunytsia (Ukrainian: полуниця, [pɔlʊˈnɪt͡sʲɐ]).[20]

Culture, religion and language-specific shibboleths[edit]

Other non-English shibboleths[edit]


  • The sentence De zon in de zee zien zakken (Eye dialect: De son in de see sien sakke) 'to see the sun go under the sea', pronounced [də ˈsɔn ɪn ˈsei sin ˈsɑkə] (or, in broader accents, [də ˈɕɔn ɪn ˈɕei ɕin ˈɕɑkə]) is used to identify speakers of the Amsterdam dialect, who lack the /z/ phoneme. The standard Dutch pronunciation of that sentence is [də ˈzɔn ɪn ˈzeː zin ˈzɑkə(n)]. Contrary to the stereotype, any prevocalic ⟨z⟩ can be voiced in Amsterdam, but then so can any prevocalic ⟨s⟩ through the process of hypercorrection (so that suiker 'sugar', pronounced [ˈsœykər] in Standard Dutch may be pronounced [ˈzɐykər] (spelled zuiker in eye dialect) in Amsterdam).[27]

English shibboleths for native speakers or local natives[edit]

Place-name pronunciations[edit]

In Australia[edit]

In Canada[edit]

In Ireland[edit]

In Malaysia[edit]

In New Zealand[edit]

  • Bluff: The town of Bluff is almost always referred to by locals with the definite article as "The Bluff".
  • Central Otago: Whereas most New Zealanders would talk about travelling to Central Otago or being in Central Otago, locals refer to travelling or being "up Central".
  • Otago: Older residents will often end and begin the regions name with a schwa as /ə.'tɑː.gə/ rather than the usual rounded "o" (/oʊ.'tɑː.goʊ/).
  • Saint Arnaud: While the official pronunciation is the same as would be expected from a French-language name (/'ɑː.noʊ/), locals often voice the name's end as /'ɑː.nəd/.
  • Waiwera South: Officially pronounced as /waɪ.'wɛər.ə/, older locals will often use the non-standard /'waɪ.vrə/.
  • West Coast and East Coast: Without context or further description, among New Zealanders "The East Coast" usually refers to the northeast of the North Island, whereas "The West Coast" usually refers to the west coast of the South Island.

Various town and street names are pronounced in counter-intuitive ways. These include:

  • Antigua Street, Christchurch: pronounced /æn.'tɪ.giːu.ər/.
  • Eltham: Although named after Eltham in England, the town's name is pronounced /'ɛl.θəm/, not /'ɛl.thəm/.
  • Filleul Street, Dunedin: pronounced /fɪ.'luː.əl/.
  • Jervois Street, Dunedin: pronounced /'dʒər.vɔɪs/.
  • Levin: pronounced /lə.'vɪn/.
  • Te Puke: pronounced /te.'pʊ.ke/.

In the United Kingdom[edit]

In the United States[edit]

Place-name terms[edit]

  • In Southern California, locals generally use the article "the" preceding the number of a freeway. Northern California locals generally do not use "the" before a numerical freeway name. For example, Southern Californians usually refer to Highway 101 as "The 101," whereas Northern Californians will refer to it as simply "101."[70][71] By comparison, people in the rest of the United States more often precede a freeway's route number with its highway classification, as in "U.S. 101" for a Federal highway or "Interstate 5" or "I-5" for an interstate highway.[72]
  • Long-time and/or Democratic residents of Washington, D.C., often refer to Reagan National Airport by its older nickname, "National," out of habit or political pique, while Republicans and visitors are more likely to call it “Reagan National”.[73]
  • Additionally, some residents of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area will refer to it as "The DMV" (the District, Maryland, and Virginia, specifically referencing the Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington Counties of Virginia; the city itself; and the Montgomery and Prince George's Counties of Maryland). This frequently leads to outsiders confusing it with the local Department of Motor Vehicles or "Delmarva", the portmanteau of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (referring to the combined areas of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Eastern Shore of Virginia, and Delaware), both of which can also be abbreviated to "DMV".[citation needed]
  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco is generally referred to by its full name, "SF" or as “the City”. In contrast, new residents and people from other parts of the US will often say "San Fran", clearly distinguishing transplants from locals.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The context was the crossing of the River Jordan; according to Speiser 1942, p. 10 the medieval Hebrew commentators and most modern scholars have understood it in this alternative sense.


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  3. ^ Isaiah 27:12
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