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Shibboleths and Traitors, or,
Death and Expulsion as Categories of Historical Phonetics


By Anatoly Liberman

The story begins with Jephtha, “the son of a harlot,” a Gileadite, once “thrust out” by his sons and later called back when war began. His life is known to us from The Book of Judges, Chapter XI and part of Chapter XII. The most dramatic episode in it is about how he made a vow to sacrifice the first person who would meet him on his return home if the Lord granted him victory. The victory was granted, but the first to greet him was his only daughter. The Old Testament is merciless; by contrast, later folklore never allows the girl to die. The motif “Jephtha and his daughter” recurs in many tales all over the Eurasian world (“Beauty and the Beast” is one of them). The obedient daughter goes voluntarily to the “beast,” survives, and marries a handsome youth, sometimes to the despair of her jealous sisters. Those who want to read a good novel written on the biblical plot should check out Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jephtha and His Daughter.

Jephtha, “a mighty man of valor,” is remembered not only for his irrevocable vow (myths loved to sacrifice daughters for practical purposes; Iphigenia was one of them). The war that restored him to power raged between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. “And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said to him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then said they unto him, say now Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth; for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan; and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand” (XII:5, 6 of the Authorized Version). The author of one of the works devoted to this event recounted it so: “Some time in or close to the eleventh century B.C. a group of Ephraimites sought to escape a band of vengeful Gileadites by attempting to get across the Jordan back into Palestine. Halted at the fords, the fugitives pretended to be natives of Gilead. They were betrayed, however, by their inability to pronounce a chosen test word in the proper Gileadite manner, with consequences that can hardly be called academic.” Just so, except that a “band” could hardly murder such a mass of fleeing enemies. Perhaps the story did not lose any fat in the telling, as Kipling’s black panther Bagheera put it on another occasion. Also, I wonder how they managed to interview everybody who tried to escape. But, however untrustworthy the details may be, it is probably unwise to question the authenticity of the tale.

For at least two thousand years scholars have been trying to discover the speech defect of the hapless Ephraimites. This is perhaps the oldest problem of historical phonetics linguists have ever dared attack. The meaning and etymology of shibboleth is also in doubt. The word could mean “ear of grain” and “watercourse.” We may be dealing with homonyms or with two meanings of the same word developed from the idea of falling down, hanging down, etc. Compare Engl. stock, a plant name, and stock “broth.” Today they are homonyms, even though dictionaries list them under the same word, but this is right only from a historical point of view. Judging by the continuations (or reflexes, as they are called) of shibboleth in some modern Semitic languages, “ear of grain” is more likely; yet on the bank of the Jordan, “river” makes better sense. As far as we can judge, the Gileadites did not point to the river and ask: “Is the Jordan a sea?” (answer: “No, it is a river”). They evidently said the word and demanded that it be repeated. The Ephraimites heard the correct pronunciation but were unable to imitate it properly. The Hebrew text suggests that the difference consisted in the different articulation of the “sibilant”: although the conquered heard sh, they could produce only s. But those who used the Hebrew alphabet had a rather primitive tool at their disposal, namely the letters samekh (for s) and shin (for sh), which may have reflected the difference between the two dialects imperfectly. 13,000 years later our chance of discovering the truth is low, and I will only say what the options are. (You may think that no one cares. If you think so, you are mistaken: all history is relevant, including language history. However, the question of the wider relevancy cannot be discussed here.)

The consonant rendered by the letter s has more than one variant. For example, the oldest Indo-European s seems to have been some kind of sh (and our sh, opposed to it, did not exist). The s of Modern Icelandic is still closer to sh than to s. S has a tendency to become sh in some positions. Thus, Engl. slay and smear correspond to German schlagen “to strike” and schmieren. The vulgar Norwegian pronunciation of Oslo is approximately Ooshlu. German words spelled with sp- and st- are pronounced with shp- and sht-: compare Engl. spy, steal versus Germ. Spion, stehlen (shp-, sht-). So perhaps the first consonant of the Gileadites was like Icelandic s, whereas the Ephraimites had a sound resembling Modern Engl. s. Specialists have weighed this and a few other options, but the best-case scenario has not been found.

One thing is clear: people cannot pronounce an alien sound even to save their lives. Think of the many variants of r in the languages of Europe: a speech therapist is needed to correct the burr, but uvular r is the norm in Parisian French, and it takes those who have it a great effort to learn the trill of Scots or Russian. At a party in northern Minnesota, people made fun of the way their friend, a native of Wisconsin, said coffee. The difference in the first vowel seemed insignificant to me, but under more dangerous circumstances it would have prevented the Wisconsinite from crossing the Mississippi. Whatever the implied meaning of shibboleth in the 11th century BCE, the word made its way into several European languages, in which it designates neither an ear of grain nor a watercourse but a distinctive mark of a group of people. New nations come to the forefront of history, old languages die, and sounds change. Only the river Jordan remains a fateful border. Alas.

We are now moving to the United States at the time of the Civil War. Thousands of peddlers followed the Federal army, bought various commodities from the Confederates and sold them in the North at a large profit. The public believed that most speculators were Jews. As a result, on December 17, 1862 General U.S. Grant issued the following General Order No. 11: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” This glaring case of collective punishment aroused protest, especially because the majority of the illicit traders could not have been Jews. On January 21, 1863, the order was revoked. The episode is well-known, and I am writing about it here in connection with the shibboleth story not because, by an odd coincidence, both concern the “Israelites.”

In the twenties and thirties of the 20th century, Americans enjoyed the books by George W. Stimpson. One of them, published in 1932, bears the title Popular Questions Answered. You could learn from it how long elephants live, whether bulls react to a red rag, and “which is the right bank of the river.” Naturally, the origin of words is among the “nuggets of knowledge” included (I am referring to the title of Stimpson’s other book), and this is the reason I read it. In the chapter “Why did General Grant expel the Jews from the army?” he quotes the letter justifying the revocation of the order. The brackets are Stimpson’s, and one sentence attracted my attention: “The President [Lincoln] has no objection to your expelling traitors [traders?] and Jew peddlers… but, as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”

I don’t know whether Stimpson was the first to suggest that traitors stood for traders, but the guess must be correct. Apparently, Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief at Washington, dictated the letter and his secretary did not distinguish between t and d between vowels. This non-discrimination of intervocalic (to use a special term) t and d is a famous shibboleth of American English. It resulted in sweetish and Swedish, tutor and Tudor, futile and feudal, Plato and play dough, let alone writer and rider (the pair cited in all introductory books on phonetics) becoming homonyms pairwise, while many people believe that deep-seated means deep-seeded. Halleck must have said traders, but the secretary wrote traitors. Traitors or traders, the Jews would have been expelled from the “Department” anyway, but the difference in the motivation is not insignificant. The age and causes of the merger of t and d between vowels in American English are a matter of debate. Most probably, this feature was brought to the New World from some British dialect and spread. 1862 is an interesting date for documenting the merger, though the change goes back to an earlier period.

Mind your p’s and q’s, but also mind your s’s and sh’s, as well as your (intervocalic) t’s and d’s. Study phonetics and etymology. You never know what may save or ruin your life.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I am no Hebraist, but I suppose that by “passages of the Jordan” is meant the fords of the river, all of which would be well-known and easy to guard. Not that many people can cross a ford simultaneously, certainly not enough to make it impossible to question each in turn.

    I do agree that the specific number given, like most specific large numbers in ancient sources, is improbable.

  2. Matt Wolf

    An interesting post. But surely you mean “Old Testament” (first paragraph). I’ve never thought of Jephthah and his daughter as belonging to the same class of story as Beauty and the Beast. Would that make YHWH the beast, then?

  3. Michael

    Dear Professor Liberman,
    Pertinent to your wonderful article, may I mention a story that I heard from my Dutch friend. According to him, the name of a Dutch town Scheveningen was used as a shibboleth during World War II, to identify German spies. These would pronounce the initial “Sch” differently from Dutch native-speakers.

    For details, please see:
    McNamara, Tim. “21st century shibboleth: language tests, identity and intergroup conflict”. Language Policy 2005 (4): 351–370. Springer Netherlands. 2005.

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