Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WNW: Shibboleths

Shibboleths are fun. Unless you're an Ephraimite, that is.

Just the word makes me smile. Generally speaking, they're a single word that easily distinguishes a person as not belonging to another group because of the way they say it.

It comes from the story in the Bible, in Judges 12, verses 5 & 6. Not a happy story. The Gileadites managed to defeat the Ephraimites in battle. When the refugee Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan river, they were given the Hebrew word shibboleth to say to prove they were Hebrews. If they couldn't say it correctly (using the SH sound at the beginning), they were killed:

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 unto 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.

Because of that story, any word that points out a person as obviously being not part of the group is a shibboleth. But a shibboleth can also be an inside joke or something else as well.

Shibboleths have been used in war many times, just like in the Bible. During WWII, there was a time where U.S. soldiers used the word, lollapalooza as a code word to distinguish Japanese Americans from Japanese spies. If the first two syllables came out with Rs (rorra instead of lolla), they shot the guy without waiting for the rest, knowing he wasn't really American.

In some of my digging, I found out that the Finns (yay, my Finns!) used two specific shibboleths during their nasty war with Russia, a war they by all accounts should have lost (and did have major losses from, but managed to be the only country bordering the Soviet Union that never fell to Soviet rule).

The first shibboleth was the Finnish word for one, or yksi. Contrary to what you'd think, the Finnish Y is a vowel. It doesn't have a typical Y sound like English or most other languages. So if a Russian dressed as a Finn tried to put a ya or some other sound at the beginning, again, they'd shoot the guy, knowing immediately that he was an impostor.

The other shibboleth totally cracked me up, because it was almost too cruel. There is no way anyone but a real Finn or someone who knew the language extremely well could have a prayer of saying this word (I know how it's pronounced, but I'm sure I have an accent):


First off, the Russians don't even have an H. They didn't stand a chance on that count alone.

Then the ö and y vowels are both really tricky. But putting them together into öy? You have got to be kidding me. Learning how to do that literally took me a year. (And I was living in the country and attending public school.)

And then in the second half of the word, you have another y.

The poor Russian (mean killer) spies were dead before they opened their mouths.

What does höyryjyrä mean? It's a totally random word. It just means steamroller. But man, it did the trick. No one but a native could possibly say that right.

Hot dang, talk about the perfect shibboleth!

On a lighter note, a good example of a cultural shibboleth situation is in What the Doctor Ordered, by Sierra St. James (also known as Janette Rallison), where the hero character decides to attend an LDS singles activity and pretend he's LDS.

The woman he's interested in knows full well he can't pull that off, but they make some sort of bet on it. He goes to the activity, and sure enough, he totally flounders. When people start talking about home teaching this and food storage that and buying bulk toilet paper . . . and then expect coherent responses out of him and he can't give them, it's one massive shibboleth.

He gives himself away. It's not long before everyone there knows without a doubt that this guy is not Mormon.

(It's a hysterical scene, by the way. I laughed my head off as this man, a respected and intelligent medical doctor, desperately tries to pretend he's Mormon and fails miserably simply because he's doesn't know the jargon and the culture.)

All of us have shibboleths in our lives, whether it's regional dialects, or family quirks that make it clear we belong to our family, or even inside jokes that crop up among close high school friends that no one else gets. They're some of the things that make life--and language--fun.


Anonymous said...

The next time I see you in person, I'm totally asking you to say that Finnish word. Now I'm dying to know how it's said.

I'm currently reading a series about WWII and there's all kinds of fascinating things I never knew about it. Shibboleth is another!

Jordan said...

LT—What? You can't hear that? It's pronounced just like it's spelled ;) .

I love shibboleths. I love the word shibboleth. I used it in my last MS. (An FBI agent undercover as a Catholic priest was worried that he'd show himself up on Mass or doctrine or something—until he meets the pretty parish secretary. Will she be the real shibboleth?)

Word verification: flope. So. Awesome.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I love this! So fascinating! The old saying that you learn something new every day comes to mind. Thanks Annette!

Annette Lyon said...

That's right, Jordan--YOU'D know how it's pronounced!

Anyone who wants to hear it said aloud, next time you see me, grab me, and I'll say it. (Or grab Jordan, if you see her and know her!)

Jordan said...

Oh, LOL, I don't know if I can really say it. But I can sound it out ;) .

Melanie Jacobson said...

How fascinating! I've never even heard of a shibboleth before. (Loved that scene in Janette's book, too.) We have several family shibboleths because of my deaf parents' tendency to pronounce things phonetically. They're inside jokes now; only we crack up when one of us prounounces "gorgeous" with a soft "g" at the beginning, or say "Southern" with the ou sounding like it does in "cloud." Good times!

Teri said...

I love the WNW posts. This was a new one for me, and I really enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing a new tidbit to enjoy!

Helena said...

Ha! I just used that word a few days ago.

Sounds like a fun book.

wendy said...

No THAT was very intersting. I had No Idea. I really learned something here.
I suppose there are many ways of detecting a Canadian or not-----EH!!!!!!!

wendy said...

I meant NOW that was very interesting----Not No (duh) typo's

Lara Neves said...

This was fascinating, and something I'd never heard of before. Very cool.

I'm going to have to start taking Finnish lessons soon. It's practically a requirement around here (well, it's not, but so much around that I feel like I should).

Shelley said...

I probably won't spell this right, but in my husband's family "mafwachucka" means "more for the rest." We say it whenever someone says they don't like the food being served. Only Fosses know what it means.

Meggen said...

Fun post! It was interesting and entertaining all wrapped into one!

Luisa Perkins said...

I love shibboleths! There are so many here in the East.

Heather of the EO said...

This is SO interesting. I've never heard of it, but I'm going to be walking around saying it now. And I LOVE knowing where it came from.

Amber Lynae said...

Ok this was by far on the top of my WNW post. I Loved this. It was fascinating and humorous.

Anonymous said...

> höyryjyrä

> First off, the Russians don't even have an H. They didn't stand a chance on that count alone.
Nah, there is an H in Russian, for example, the word for "bread" starts with H: On the other hand, it's true that only a person who is very well versed in Finnish would possibly be able to pronounce that. The most difficult part for a Russian person, who speaks some Finnish, would be to avoid pronouncing "iy" as a single sound.

> Then the ö and y vowels are both really tricky. But putting them together into öy? You have got to be kidding me.
We had a sculpture called "Yöllä järvellä" in RAMK, where I studied. :)

Thanks for an interesting post!

Annette Lyon said...


You're right--Russian does have a version of an H. (I've even taken some Russian and know better--duh.) But the Russian H doesn't sound quite the same as a Finnish one--it's more in the throat. (I should really consult my linguist father for the right term here.)

That sculpture's name would have been another great one. "Yö" was a hard word for me to say as well.


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