What is the meaning of “Shibboleth”?

Shibboleth (from Hebrew, שבולת) is a speech pattern that identifies a particular linguistic group, functioning practically as a type of linguistic password.


Shibboleth is the transliteration of a Hebrew word, which some translate it as a “stream, torrent of water”, while other as “ear of corn”.

It is written in the Old Testament that the word was used to distinguish between two Semitic tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, who were in confrontation. The Gileadites, the conquerors, blocked all the passages to the Jordan River in order to prevent the surviving Ephraimites from escaping. Sentinel soldiers demanded that all who passed pronounce the word “shibboleth,” but since the Ephraimites did not have the / x / phoneme in their dialect, they could only pronounce “sibboleth” using the phoneme / si / on the first syllable, being thus recognized and executed.

This use of language to differentiate human groups is widespread worldwide and was generally used in hostile acts against those who are recognized as belonging to different groups. During the massacre of Sicilian Vespers, XIII, the French were recognized by the way they pronounced ciceri. During the revolutions of 1893 and 1923, in Southern Brazil, the Uruguayans were identified by the pronunciation of the letter J or the word for chopsticks.

Expansion of the term

Currently, the term has an expanded meaning and may also indicate a habit or a specific characteristic, which allows to recognize individuals as belonging to a distinct group. It is important not to confuse it with accent or regionalism, although it’s related to them.

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