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Whose Shibboleth? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 5, 2012

One announced BLT post I’m looking forward to reading in 2012 is “Bible translation preference as shibboleth.”  Pardon me, however, if I write another post on shibboleth now.

Let me just start with our English.  Then we’ll see how we got it.  Then we’ll see how we get it.  We may be forced into translation.  I know I will be forced into translation (so that will come at the end of this post).

I. How We Got It (Etymology and all)

Here’s from the Oxford English Dictionary, a good source for us English language insiders:

shibboleth, n.
Pronunciation:  /ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/
Forms:  ME s(h)ebolech, 15, 16 schiboleth, 16 schibboleth, 16–18 shiboleth, 16– shibboleth.

Etymology:  < Hebrew shiˈbbōleth ; in the Vulgate transliterated sciboleth.

The word occurs with the senses ‘ear of corn’ and ‘stream in flood’; in the passage now referred to the LXX and Vulgate give the former rendering; mod. commentators prefer the latter, on the ground that on this view the selection of the word is naturally accounted for, as the slaughter took place ‘at the fords of Jordan’.

1. The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).

1382    Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Judges xii. 6   Thei askiden hym, Seye thanne Sebolech [1535 Coverdale Schiboleth, 1611 Shibboleth],‥the which answerde, Shebolech [a1425 L.V. Thebolech, 1535 Siboleth, 1611 Sibboleth].
1671    Milton Samson Agonistes 289   In that sore battel when so many dy’d Without Reprieve adjudg’d to death, For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth.
1844    M. Elphinstone Hist. India II. vi. iii. 73   As some endeavoured to conceal their character, recourse was had to a test like the Jewish Shiboleth.

 2. transf.

 a. A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.

 b. A peculiarity of pronunciation or accent indicative of a person’s origin.

 c. loosely. A custom, habit, mode of dress, or the like, which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.


 a. fig. A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.

b. The mode of speech distinctive of a profession, class, etc.

Draft additions  1993

Hence, a moral formula held tenaciously and unreflectingly, esp. a prohibitive one; a taboo.

ˈsibboleth, v.


  intr. To speak with a special pronunciation.

1638    T. Herbert Some Yeares Trav. (rev. ed.) 154   At this day [it] is call’d Spawhawn (or as they Sibboleth, Sphawhawn) and by most writers differently spelled.

Now, that should explain pretty much everything.

II.  How We Get It (as English insiders or perhaps as English outsiders)

Now, all of that should explain pretty much everything indeed.  However, if you’re learning English as an additional language, then this is utterly complex.  So, if you’re learning English as an additional language, and if your mother tongue is modern Hebrew, then you could perhaps start more easily get more this way, with flash cards:

But maybe that would be getting it backwards. Let’s go back to the source text, then.

III.  Might We Be Forced into Translation?

We read the story from Judges xii. 4–6, and we infer what shibboleth is and, better, what a “shibboleth” is.  We read again the OED etyomologies, English from the transliterated Hebrew shiˈbbōleth, not siˈbbōleth.  And there’s English from the transliterated Latin sciboleth, not siboleth, which the OED editors wrongly attribute to the Vulgate when this is actually Pagnini.  So we read from the Vulgate the transliterated Latin sebboleth, not tebboleth.

So Wycliffe’s English follows with Sebolech, not Thebolech.  But Bishops has Schibboleth, not Sibboleth .  But the Douai has Sebboleth, not Tebboleth.  But the Geneva and the King James have Shibboleth, not Sibboleth.  That’s English.

And yet, if our mother tongue is German, then we might say Danke to Martin Luther for giving us the Bible in the language of our Deustch speaking fathers and not, ostensibly, in Hebrew or with Hebraisms at all.  We’d read the German story climax, then, this way:

hießen sie ihn sprechen: Schiboleth; so sprach er Siboleth und konnte es nicht recht reden; alsdann griffen sie ihn schlugen ihn an den Furten des Jordans, daß zu der Zeit von Ephraim fielen zweiundvierzigtausend.

That’s ironic, isn’t it?  Luther has no insider German to replace the Hebrew by.

Then, there’s irony when we think about a pratogonist of a story, who’s a Nazi “hunter of Jews” — even in a film of historical fiction — using a Schiboleth or two:

Here’s an analysis from a blogger who’s seen such a film, which is in part German, in part French, in part Italian, in spoken English mostly, and in written English subtitles for the primary, mainly mono-lingual American English audience:

* The Jewish family’s inability to speak English seals their doom as they hide under the floorboards of the French farmer’s house, unaware that Landa is openly discussing their demise. And by pulling out a Sherlock Holmes pipe and puffing on it as he prepares to reveal that he has known all along that the farmer is hiding the family, Landa is practically telegraphing this to the farmer – but it only makes sense after it’s too late.

* British agent Lt. Hicox gives himself away as a spy first by his German accent (which, good as it may be, cannot fool an authentic German) and then by being unaware of the cultural custom of holding two fingers and a thumb up to signal the number three (rather than the more common method of simply using the main three fingers).

* At the Nazi film event, Landa can instantly detect the Basterds are spies by their poor Italian accents.

* And at the restaurant alone with Shosanna, Landa drops some shibboleth-hints to suggest he secretly knows who she really is, by making overt references to milk and cream as he grills her about her made-up identity.

And the blogger, J. S. Holland, then brings this all back to English, to English and not German shibboleths:

One of my favorite films, Inglourious Basterds, is all about the nuances of language and codes and customs and shibboleths – even its very name is a shibboleth. [Quintin] Tarantino, a devout film buff, liberally loaded his movie with film history references, some obvious, some abstract.

From the English language wikipedia entry about the film, we get a hint at why “Inglourious Basterds… – even its very name is a shibboleth”; here’s the skinny with all of the un-shibboleth hyperlinks retained, of course:

The title of the film was inspired by the English title of director Enzo G. Castellari‘s 1978 war film, The Inglorious Bastards.[17][18] When asked for an explanation of the film’s title spelling during a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Tarantino said, “I’m never going to explain that”.[19] When pushed on it, Tarantino would not explain the first u in Inglourious, but said, “The Basterds? That’s just the way you say it: Basterds.”[18][20] Tarantino later stated in an interview that the misspelled title is “a Basquiat-esque touch.”[21] He further commented on Late Show with David Letterman that Inglourious Basterds is a “Quentin Tarantino spelling.”[22]

And those wikipediaists, those English writing wikipediaists anyway, have noted more (in their entry on shibboleth) about how the Americans and Dutch during World War II actually turned things back around on the Nazis:

For example, during the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers used knowledge of baseball to determine if others were fellow Americans or if they were German infiltrators in American uniform. The Dutch used the name of the port town Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from the Dutch (“Sch” in Dutch is analyzed as the letter “s” and the digraph “ch”, producing the consonant cluster sx, while in German it is analyzed as the trigraph “sch,” pronounced [ʃ]).

But we wonder if we English readers might be missing something.  Perhaps.

Note, for example, all of the Korean wikipediaists’ many and various examples of 쉽볼렛, not 씹볼렛. On the Korean wikipedia site here, there are the Dutch shibblething the Germans again (pardon my English — yes, I know the OED editors insist that the verb form is both rare and intransitive, but I believe you get what I mean); and, so on the Korean wikipedia site, there are the Finns shibblething the Russians, the Ukrainians doing the same differently, the Haitians shibblething, the Belgians shibblething, the Dutch shibblething again now tricking the French also, the Scilian Norman Frenchmen shibblething, the Barcelonans shibblething, the Brazilians shibblething the Paraguayans, and, most notably, the Japanese shibblething the Koreans.

We imagine if we read every wikipedia entry in the different languages, or if we tried and failed, then we’d surely not get all of it.

IV. All of that suggests this:  I will be forced into translation, so that what I’ve heard and seen isn’t entirely gibberish or something else missed by you or by me

Once upon a time, at another blog, I told a couple of stories, examples of shibboleths, aptly enough.  And then I went on to tell the Bible story again, but I considered some things gibberish, probably like a Ephramite or several tens of thousands of Ephramites.  And yet I wanted to listen more like a reader of Greek, in which that Greek itself was a Hebraic shibboleth or two.  If you’re interested, and if you think you can get it, then here that is (with a link to the original post at the end of this one):

So, now, there’s this story in the Bible. It’s also become a story of bible translation. This is the example of gibberish I was talking about at the beginning of this post. Sounding really important and smart, the translation usually goes like this:

Jephthah captured the shallow crossings of the Jordan River, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim tried to go back across, the men of Gilead would challenge him. “Are you a member of the tribe of Ephraim?” they would ask. If the man said, “No, I’m not,” they would tell him to say “Shibboleth.” If he was from Ephraim, he would say “Sibboleth,” because people from Ephraim cannot pronounce the word correctly. Then they would take him and kill him at the shallow crossings of the Jordan. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time.

This really is one of the best translations of Judges 12:5-6 in my opinion because it forgoes the really strange English word “fords” and uses the much-clearer phrase “shallow crossings” instead. This is the New Living Translation. But, like every other translation of the Bible I’ve heard, there’s the weird “Shibboleth” / “Sibboleth” thing that seems give us English readers (especially non-Ephramites) some kind of insider track here. We’d more quickly side with the killers than the killed here.

What we don’t get by the sounds-only translation is what the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת means to some of the early readers of the story. Quite literally, it’s an ambiguous old term that can mean either “corn stalk or grain waves” or “water flood or stream.” And the Jews translating this word into Greek (in the Septuagint, “Judges A” AND “Judges B”) make the Hebrew mean either σύνθημα or στάχυς [sun-thema OR stachys]. The first Greek word is just a signal to the reader who seems to know the story well:  it means something like a “theme together” or an “inside joke” (or a “password” — which is how translator Philip E. Satterthwaite moves the Greek into English in the New English Translation of the Septuagint).  The second Greek word, in this context, is sometimes translated into English as “Stachys.”  (And that’s exactly how English translator Sir Lancelot Brenton translates it while Satterthwaite clarifies the word to mean “Ear-of-Corn“). The Greek word στάχυς, of course, is ambiguous. Greek readers know it means “ear of corn” but it also is used for the “lower part of the abdomen.”

So if you read the story in Greek translation from the Hebrew, then it is funny because the Ephramites can’t pronounce “corn stalk” and they get stabbed in the point of their body that looks like a corn stalk: they get a sword run through the lower part of their abdomen.  Or if you read the Judges A translation from Hebrew to Greek, then it’s more serious because the translator is just reminding Jewish readers how one group used a password (an inside joke) on the other group, deadly serious stuff.  In both Jewish translations (from Hebrew to their Hellene), the reader never hears the Ephramites stumbling over the word (i.e., as if saying “Sibboleth”).  The silence is important, I think, because the translators are giving a nod to their readers and not entirely trying to explain what would be understood if listening to the story in Hebrew.  (Sylvie Honigman, the scholar in Jerusalem who’s looked at the legend of the Septuagint, says that the Greek here is in the Homeric not the Alexandrian [or Aristotelian] paradigm — that’s important to me as I look at how Aristotle abstracts language and the early Greeks refused to do that.  The ancient Jews, with their scripture, are much more playful than many of our English translations today – in more straightforward ancient Aristotelian fashion – give them credit for).

And if you read the story in Hebrew translated into as playful English, then it goes something like this. And here I give apologies to my good Japanese language tutor:

So they say to him,
“So say ‘cornstalk rows like water flows’.”
So he says “colnstark lows rike watel hrows.”
So he can’t rightly get it right.
So they seize him.
So they make his blood flow at the crossing of the Jordan.
So at that time some forty two thousand fall

some forty two thousand of the tribe
                                        of that twice-blessed second born of

Now listen to the Hebrew:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹו אֱמָר־נָא שִׁבֹּלֶת
וַיֹּאמֶר סִבֹּלֶת
וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר כֵּן
וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אֹותֹו
וַיִּשְׁחָטוּהוּ אֶל־מַעְבְּרֹות הַיַּרְדֵּן
וַיִּפֹּל בָּעֵת הַהִיא מֵאֶפְרַיִם אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנַיִם אָלֶף׃

And hear the Greekistic translations:

Judges A
καὶ εἶπαν αὐτοῖς εἴπατε δὴ σύνθημα
[nothing’s needed here]
καὶ οὐ κατηύθυναν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως
καὶ ἐπελάβοντο αὐτῶν
καὶ ἔσφαξαν αὐτοὺς ἐπὶ τὰς διαβάσεις τοῦ Ιορδάνου
καὶ ἔπεσαν ἐξ Εφραιμ ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ δύο τεσσαράκοντα χιλιάδες

Judges B
καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ εἰπὸν δὴ στάχυς
[nothing’s needed here!]
καὶ οὐ κατεύθυνεν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως
καὶ ἐπελάβοντο αὐτοῦ
καὶ ἔθυσαν αὐτὸν πρὸς τὰς διαβάσεις τοῦ Ιορδάνου
καὶ ἔπεσαν ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀπὸ Εφραιμ τεσσαράκοντα δύο χιλιάδες

Don’t you hear how language keeps us out?  If it’s “shibboleth” and we can say it, we think we’re in.  But the Jews who translating from Hebrew into their own Hellene didn’t feel the need (in either of their Greek versions) to separate out only the sounds of שִׁבֹּלֶת and σύνθημα or στάχυς.  The Hebrew writer(s) of Judges will allow readers to play close attention to the interplay between the water crossing of the Jordan river and the word (i.e., water flowing like grain growing) used to trip up the Ephramites at that cross.  The Jews translating the Hebrew into their Greek, similarly, remind the readers that this is word play.  How it sounds can be fatal.  (In somebody’s gibberish, that’s just fatalistic?)

Whose is Shibboleth? Mine, Yours, Theirs?  (link: the old post with my own shibboleth stories).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2012 11:10 pm

    Man, if you keep on making these great posts, how am I ever going to be able to keep up?

    In fact, I find the entire idea of “shibboleth” fascinating on many different levels. Your analysis is beautiful, but the idea of “shibboleth” is so intriguing [and also horrific] and has so many fascinating consequences that I think that this post (and my future post) will barely scratch the surface.

  2. January 6, 2012 12:16 pm

    Please, please scratch the surface, and more, with your post! Looking forward to your look at “Bible translation preference as shibboleth.”

    In fictional and non-fictional histories of shibboleths, it seems that the protagonists, the heroes, are the insiders and that the villians, the outsiders, all get their due. This is why Inglourious Basterds is a particularly interesting version of shibboleth story. As the blogger J. S. Holland analyses, it seems that the shibboleth-er is the Nazi; and yet Tarantino turns this all around. Not even the “basterds” (i.e., the linguistically challenged heroes of the movie) are the real and actual protagonists. No. Rather, the real protagonist, and the audience is in on this eventually, is the one who herself gets everything linguistically, and this one who ultimately turns the tables is Shosanna Dreyfus (played brilliantly by Mélanie Laurent), who unveils and effects the final plot:

    A minute into the video clip linked below — from “Chapter 5: The Revenge of the Giant Face” in Tarantino’s film — the audience sees the “shallow crossing of the Jordan” for the villians — as we all hear and see: “My name is Shosanna Dreyfus and this the face… of Jewish vengeance.”

    By the way, when posting originally and saying how I liked the NLT version of Judges 12:6 for not using “fords” (for מַעְבְּרֹ), I think I need to add another translation I like of this verse, the Common English Bible:

    6 they would tell him, “Then say shibboleth.” But he would say, “sibboleth,” because he couldn’t pronounce it correctly. So they would seize him and kill him at the Jordan’s crossing points. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

    And I must say I really like our co-blogger’s footnote (i.e., from Craig Smith’s The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation), which suggests wordplays for the reader who’s taking in the scene and all of the sounds of Judges 12:

    The Jordan River ranges from 230 feet above sea level at its headwaters in the north to about 1,290 feet below sea level in the south. It often travels through deep and nearly inaccessible ravines, and the valley’s quick descent creates swift currents and dangerous rapids in many places. (The word shibboleth actually means a torrent of water.) This made the river a natural boundary — so much so that the tribes living east of the Jordan, separated for many generations from those on the west, gradually came to adopt different speech patterns, one of which was the inability to pronounce the “sh” sound. The Jordan was such a serious obstacle in any east-to-west movement in Canaan that control of the fords — those places where crossings were possible — became extremely important militarily.

    Compare Craig’s footnote with the NET Bible note to see how much more the former understands the play of words than many Bible translators typically do; here’s the NET note (and my emphases on both quotations here):

    The inability of the Ephraimites to pronounce the word shibboleth the way the Gileadites did served as an identifying test. It illustrates that during this period there were differences in pronunciation between the tribes. The Hebrew word shibboleth itself means “stream” or “flood,” and was apparently chosen simply as a test case without regard to its meaning.

  3. January 6, 2012 3:01 pm

    What a pity we didn’t name this blog “Shibboleth,” That could have been an even better name than “BLT.”

    By the way, the story is even deeper than that, because in the written language, shin and sin are represented by exactly the same character — it is possible to add a distinguishing mark, but that is not the case in the standard way that the language would be written. So, for a reader of the story in Hebrew, there is a completely different effect than in English — it is a bit like saying “they couldn’t say the code word ‘read'” leaving ambiguous whether it was supposed to be pronounced “reed” or “red.”

    The story goes deeper than that for me. I learned to read when I was very young, and became an avid reader. As a result, I frequently first encountered words in written form, and just guessed at their pronunciation. I think that many people have had the same experience.

    So when we first read (but do not yet hear) a word like “insurance” or “tonsure” how are we supposed to know that the “s” has a “sh” sound? We may know what those words mean, but we don’t know whether to use the “s” or “sh” sound. (There is no simple “s becomes sh before u” rule because we have words like “super.”) I think that connecting with these sorts of experiences — experiences that we all have had — is key to full appreciating this story.

  4. January 6, 2012 3:11 pm

    What a pity we didn’t name this blog “Shibboleth,” That could have been an even better name than “BLT.”

    Shhh —


    The story goes deeper than that for me…. I think that connecting with these sorts of experiences — experiences that we all have had — is key to full appreciating this story.

    Thank you for sharing that, Theophrastus, and thanks for connecting the experiences, yours and many of the rest of us, with so much in the story. (One of my own children is a voracious reader, but she wears hearing aids and is often unsure how words and phrasings sound to most when she encounters the sibilant-representing letters the first time. And yet, all the rest of us who have a wider range of sound frequency perception experience this also from time to time, as you point out.)

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