A shibboleth is any distinguishing practice that is indicative of one’s social or regional origin. It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbóleth, which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, stream, torrent. The modern usage derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.
After the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim around 1370–1070 BC, the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test as we can read in chapter 12 of the Book of Judges:
5 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;
6 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
Since then, many shibboleths have been used for military purposes:
Fourteen Year Old Richard II Meets the Revolting Peasants
– “And many fflemmynges loste hir heedes at that tyme and namely they that koude nat say Breede and Chese, but Case and Brode.” The Peasants’ Revolt of AD 1381 also known as the Tyler’s Rebellion, or the Great Rising, was used by the merchants of London in an attempt to get a competitive edge in the trade with the Low Countries by reducing the number of competitors. A massacre among the Flemings in London – not just the Flemish merchants – ensued.
– “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 them to repeat the challenge ‘schild en vriend’ (meaning: shield and friend). The Flemings pronounced ‘schild’ with a separate ‘s’ /s/ and ‘ch’ /x/ as in ‘Scheveningen’. Flemings would pronounce ‘vriend’ with a voiced v and a rolling r whereas French would render those as a voiceless /f/ and a fricative or approximant uvular /r/.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’ in Dutch. Which became the name of the massacre.
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