shibboleth
n. a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons

I read this delightful little word in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (and later in an H.L. Mencken excerpt) and decided it would be perfect for a Wednesday’s Word. It has a number of meanings, but its literal meaning is the first one, as it was used by the Gileadites to find Ephraimites, for whom the phoneme |š| or |ʃ|1 was unpronounceable (see Judges 12:4–6).

Shibboleths can be customs—as long as we’re talking about the Hebrews, circumcision comes to mind—but they tend to be grammatical. For a good list, see the Wikipedia entry.

  1. The official IPA symbol for a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative is the latter symbol, but I was taught the Trager-Smith notation, which uses the former, since my studies were Anglo-centric[]
§1333 · August 30, 2006 · Tags: ·

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