A shibboleth is a custom, behavior, or particular use of language which is believed to identify the user as a member or non-member of a particular group. Historical examples of shibboleths include the pronunciation of particular sounds, the willingness or unwillingness to eat certain foods, or the possession of particular arcane knowledge. Contemporary shibboleths include the use of 'leetspeak' or professional jargon.
The term shibboleth comes from the Hebrew for 'the grain-bearing portion of a plant'. The use of the word 'shibboleth' as a test is related in the Old Testament book of Judges, Chapter 12, v1-15. The language of the Ephraimites lacked a 'sh' sound; therefore Ephraimites would mispronounce 'shibboleth':
- 12, 4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
- 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 say 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.
Modern Example of Pronunciation Illustrating Background
A modern example of a particular pronunciation demonstrating one's background or beliefs is how Barack Obama pronounces "Pakistan" in the way used by Muslims from that area of the world (as "Pokiston"), rather than using the common American pronunciation. This is an effect of his Muslim upbringing.