How you pronounce a word or phrase can often tell a lot about where you are from, or your religion or ethnicity. It is often used to confirm ‘Yeah, you’re one of us’, but on occasion – in the wrong situation – it could cost you your life.
IN A conversation recently with a family member from the North of Ireland an interesting topic arose. During the times of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland the way the letter 'H' was pronounced was often used to identify whether the speaker was Protestant or Catholic – Protestant schools teach the pronunciation as aitch, and in Catholic schools as haitch. This was in a time when being one or the other could result in a vicious beating, or even death.
The use of differences in pronunciation or customs as means to identify members of certain groups is called a shibboleth. The term is Biblical in origin, and the word itself is Hebrew for the part of a plant containing grains, like an ear of corn.
In the Book of Judges from the Hebrew Bible the story is told of a military defeat of the people of Ephraim by the Gileadites (in around 1370–1070 BC). As the Ephraimites tried to escape to safety over the River Jordan their way was blocked by enemy troops. As a means of identifying which refugees were which they were asked to say ‘shibboleth’. Ephraimites lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme as in shoe, and they pronounced the word as 'sibboleth'. Those failing the test were slain on the banks of the Jordan. The Book of Judges tells us, 'Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion'.
In more recent times, after the Allied invasion of mainland Europe in 1944 as part of the battle to defeat Nazi Germany, US troops would use questions on American baseball to quickly identify German infiltrators in US uniforms. Similarly in the Pacific Campaign during the Second World War American sentries used the shibboleth lollapalooza under the premise the Japanese troops could not pronounce the lls. Failure to do so resulted in sentries opening fire into the darkness without asking further questions.
In Finland, during the Second World War sentries often used the word höyryjyrä – meaning steamroller – to identify Russian troops, who had no chance of pronouncing this world correctly. Heaven knows what happened to Swedish-speaking troops or Hungarian volunteers on the Finnish side who would also struggle with höyryjyrä – as would pretty much anybody else in the world.
The most common shibboleths – and happily ones less likely to result in death – are placenames. Local pronunciation of a town or city's name is often quite different to that of the rest of the world. In the United Kingdom, Derby is pronounced Darby, Norwich as Norrich, Sowerby as Sorbi, catching out nonlocals and foreign tourists alike. Residents of New Jersey in the US never say they're from New Jersey, but simply Jersey. And the 'new' in New York, New Mexico, New Hampshire etc. is usually pronounced 'nu' by Americans and 'new' by other English-speakers.
Shibboleths are common in many languages and are often used for comic effect. In Finnish 'Olin seitsemän vuotta sedälläni kodossa renkinä' means 'I spent seven years at my uncle's home as a servant'. To tease Eastern Tavastians – who pronounce 'd' as 'l' – t becomes Olin seitsemän vuotta selälläni kolossa renkinä, which means 'I spent seven years a servant in a hole, lying on my back' – with the suggestion of being a sex slave.
Beaucoup in French means many, or much. However, beau cul – with a difference in pronunciation barely audible to a non native-speaker – means nice ass. Beware of gracious French waiters who may in fact be complimenting your derriére.
The use of a shibboleth is often innocent, and indeed its recognition is sometimes on a subconscious level – hearing a familiar word to describe something or a subtle difference in accent. Not all cultural differences can be learnt, some are inherited.
In Quentin Tarantino's 2009 war movie Inglourious Basterds a British intelligence officer, Lt. Archie Hicox, is behind enemy lines, passing himself off as a German officer in a tavern full of German soldiers. Hicox's German is flawless – his character is played by the bilingual Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender – but he betrays himself to a Gestapo Major by ordering three drinks by holding up his index, middle and ring fingers – as is the norm in English-speaking countries. In most of Europe finger-counting begins with the thumb and Hicox's fatal flaw leads to a massive shootout, in which nearly everybody in the bar is killed.
A more subtle shibboleth than the above example would be hard to find. At the end of the day local cultural knowledge is irreplaceable. Whether travelling or doing business, trying to pass yourself off as a local is foolish and a friendly native face can smooth the way. Similarly writing for a target market should be culture-specific – aim to impress with local knowledge, but don't overdo it.
 Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_shibboleths)
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