Translation of Christoph Gutknecht, “Codewort Schibboleth”, originally published in Jüdische Allgemeine, July 07, 2011
Each time I visit France and have breakfast there, I am reminded of Goethe. In his 1792 essay “Campagne in Frankreich” he offered this spot-on description of the difference between Germans and their neighbors to the West: “White bread and black bread form the shibboleth, the war cry that distinguishes the Germans and the French.”
Shibboleth is a Hebrew word. The tanakh (Sefer Shoftim; Book of Judges 12:5-6) describes it as a military code word in the war of the Gileadites against the Ephraimites. 42,000 Ephraimite refugees were massacred at a ford in the Jordan river because they mispronounced “shibboleth” (which means “ear of corn” and, in this context, also “body of water”) as “sibboleth.” To be historically accurate, despite the spelling sh-b-l-t, the Gileadites pronounced the initial sound as a voiceless dental fricative, like th in English, and the Ephramaites replaced it with an s-sound.
Fatal mispronunciations have been reported in other wars, too. During the War of the Sicilian Vespers, 2,000 French occupiers were killed in Palermo in 1281. They were identified because they couldn’t pronounce the c-sound ceci (“chick-peas”) and chichi (“beans”) in the Italian way.
During World War II, Dutch resistance fighters used the pronunciation of the city of Scheveningen to distinguish between friend and foe. Germans failed to pronounce the city name as s-cheveningen and used an intial sh instead. And during the Finnish-Soviet Winter War of 1939/40, the Finnish code word was Karjala (“Karelia”), which Russian soldiers would mispronounce as “Karelija.”
Marion Tauschwitz reports a particularly gruesome shibboleth in her biography of Hilde Domin. Like many other German-Jewish refugees, the poet Hilde Domin found refuge in the Dominican Republic in 1940. The dictator Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic at the time, thought that European-Jewish refugees provided him with an opportunity to “whiten” his people a bit. While he welcomed European immigrants, he used drastic means to keep Haitian immigrants out. The Dominican Republic shares borders with French-speaking Haiti and Haitians have always tried to move to the more prosperous Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, Trujillo considered them as too dark-skinned in contrast to the more lightly-skinned population of the Dominican Republic, and so the stage was set for the Parsley Massacre. In 1937, 20,000 Haitians residing in border areas were massacred if they failed to pronounce the Spanish word for “parsley”, perejil, with a rolled r. The typical French substitution of l instead of r made them easy targets.
On the positive side, there are harmless shibboleths, too. Non-native speakers of German rarely manage to pronounce Streichholzschächtelchen (“match box”) correctly and those who can’t do the Swiss German Chuchichäschtli (“kitchen cabinet”) are easily identified as German Germans. Northern Germans in Bavaria are stuck when it comes to Oachkatzlschwoaf (“squirrel tail”) and Bavarians falter at the Low German equivalent, Eekkattensteert. Finally, Non-Jews who want to wish their Jewish friends “Happy Hanukkah” should make sure to stress the first syllable. Stressing the second syllable might lead to the conclusion that the well-wisher only has a superficial knowledge of Judaism.
Christoph Gutknecht is Professor Emeritus of English Linguistics at Hamburg University and the author of numerous popular books about language in German.