Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I was Wikipedia surfing recently (drifting from page to page on Wikipedia), and I happened upon the page describing the idea of a “Shibboleth”. A Shibboleth, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a linguistic “dead giveaway” that can distinguish a member of one group from a person who isn’t. For an example, look at the term itself (explanation borrowed from Wikipedia’s Page on Shibboleth):

The term originates from the Hebrew word שבולת‎, which literally means “stream, torrent”.[2] It derives from a story in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group (like the Ephraimites) whose dialect lacked an SH sound (as in shoe) from members of a group (like the Gileadites) whose dialect did include such a sound.

In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), some Ephraimites crossed secretly into Gilead’s territory in an attempt to escape retribution. In order to identify and kill these disguised refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:

“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, KJV)

I can understand using these sorts of things to get a better idea of who you’re dealing with (or even for some friendly dialect mockery), but to kill somebody based on their pronunciation seems a little bit overboard. Apparently, it’s not though. The wikipedia site has a whole listing of Shibboleths used in War, including some very interesting examples. Apparently, the phrase “War Weapons Week” (followed by “Welmouth”) was used by British forces to distinguish Germans, who generally have trouble with the English “W”, often turning it into a V sound (“var veapons veek”).

Now, I can understand things like this to be a nice, quick and easy way of removing some initial doubt about the origins of a person. However, I can’t imagine it working as the main system of identification. Take, for instance, the “War, Weapons, Week” example. Yes, the English W is an uncommon sound, and it’s rather unlikely that a German foot soldier with little English training would be able to produce it.

However, it’s very important to remember that the vocal apparatus of a German speaker is no different than that of an English speaker. Human vocal tracts don’t vary across ethnic and social groups. The only reason most Germans can’t pronounce a W is because they’ve not been raised or trained to do so. This is the same reason that English speakers have a heck of a time with the Spanish trilled (or “rolled”) R. The basic lesson to learn here is that given enough time, dedication and training, a speaker of any language can learn to produce pretty much any sound. In fact, one of the things that you’re often tested on in Phonetics courses is your ability to pronounce sounds not found in your native language. Anybody can learn any sound, if they truly care to, so a shibboleth based on pronunciation is only as strong as the dedication of the person you’re testing. It’s also worth noting that Bilingual or multilingual speakers (who have spoken or been exposed to several languages since birth) can have good (if not perfect) pronunciation of more than one language and dialect.

So, it’s quite possible to have a false-positive, somebody who can say the Shibboleth without trouble, yet is still from outside the desired group. Also, I suppose it’s perfectly possible to have a person who is in the desired group, but has some sort of speech impediment or linguistic background which would prevent them from making the proper pronunciation.

Although it’s an interesting concept, and a good first step to identifying somebody, it’s vital to remember that a pronunciation-based test will never be 100% accurate. If you’re cutting people down because they mispronounce a word, you might be killing friends based on the slip of a tongue, and enemy linguists can walk all over you. Ninjas have nothing on us. :)


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