An Ancient Shibboleth

Sam Sherman of Voorhees, N.J., has an interesting question. It has to do with a story in the 12th chapter of the Book of Judges about a battle between the Gileadites, who lived to the east of the Jordan River, and the Ephraimites, who lived to the west of it. When the Ephraimites were defeated, they sought to flee by pretending to be Gileadites, and each time one of them was caught, the King James Version of the Bible tells us:

“The men of Gilead said unto him: ‘Art thou an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘Nay,’ then they said unto him, ‘Say now Shibboleth.’ But he said Sibboleth, because he was not able to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.”

The Ephraimites, in other words, could not pronounce the “sh” sound, and thus gave themselves away. This story gives us our English word “shibboleth,” pronounced “shee-bo-let” in modern Hebrew, and causes Sherman to ask:

Let’s have a look.

In the third-and-second-century BCE Greek Septuagint, our passage from Judges is translated:

Stachys means “an ear of wheat” in Greek, which is also the primary meaning (and in the modern language, the only one) of shibboleth in Hebrew, and the Greek translators, unable to reproduce the first letter of the Hebrew word in Greek, chose to convey the general sense of the episode without specifying the exact nature of the Ephraimites’ mispronunciation. In doing so, however, they made an amusing mistake. This is because shibboleth in ancient Hebrew can also mean “a strong current of water” or “whirlpool” — and in view of the fact that our story takes place at “the fords of the Jordan,” this is clearly the meaning that the Gileadites, who could have chosen any word beginning with shin, had in mind.

Moreover, not only is stachys a blunder, but it is also one that was passed on to Jerome’s fourth-century C.E. Latin Vulgate, in which we read: Interrogabant eum: Dic ergo Scibboleth quod interpreratur Spica. Qui respondebar, Sibboleth: eadem littera spicam exprimere non valens; that is, “They asked him: ‘Say then Scibboleth’ — which means an ear of wheat [spica]. Whoever answered Sibboleth, being unable to pronounce the [first] letter of spica,” etc. Had Jerome consulted — as he sometimes did — Jewish rabbis about this passage, he would have translated it differently, for in rabbinic tradition, shibbolet is always taken here to refer to water.

But getting back to Sherman’s question, Jerome, unlike the Septuagint, made the distinction between shibboleth and sibboleth by transliterating the former as scibboleth. This will make the Latinists among you protest that he was not being accurate, since “sc” in Latin is always “sk,” as in a word like scientia, science, pronounced by the ancient Romans “skee-entiah.” But before you accuse Jerome of blundering a second time, remember that in Italian the Latin “sc” regularly becomes a “sh,” so that Latin scientia is Italian scienza, pronounced “shee-entsa.”

Did this sound shift take place as early as the fourth century, in which the Latin spoken in Italy cannot yet be considered to have been transformed into Italian, although it already differed in some respects from the Latin spoken in France and Spain? (In both these languages, indeed, the “sc” changed differently, so that in French science it is pronounced like an “s,” whereas in Spanish ciencia it is either an “s” or a “th.”) It must have done so, even if histories of Italian tend to date the shift to a later period, since otherwise Jerome, for whom correct Latin was the Latin spoken in Rome, would have been unlikely to write shibbolet as scibboleth.

In contemporary English, shibboleth has commonly assumed the meaning of a catchword or a commonplace saying, replacing the older meaning of a litmus test in pronunciation. And yet not only are shibboleths still sometimes used in wartime as they were by the biblical Gileadites, but they still sometimes involve the distinction between “s” and “sh,” as well. This is how during World War II, for instance, the Dutch, who have an “s” in their phonology but not a “sh,” identified Germans, who have an initial “sh” (spelled “sch”) but not an initial “s.” (The letter “s” at the beginning of German words is pronounced like an English “z.”) The most common Dutch shibboleth was the name of the city Scheveningen, in which the “ch” is pronounced like the “ch” in Bach, and whoever couldn’t say it properly could be in as much trouble as an Ephraimite at the fords of the Jordan.

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An Ancient Shibboleth

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