Bulbul‘s latest post is about shibboleths he’s “recently encountered in works of fiction” (and may I point out, enviously, that this Slovak who blogs in excellent English reads novels in Dutch and Polish, and I’ll bet several other languages as well, without batting an eye). The first, from Paul Verhoeven’s Soldaat van Oranje, involves two guys (dressed in tuxedos) trying to get into the Netherlands to help fight the Germans in 1940; suspicious border guards make them say Scheveningen [sxe:vənɪŋə] to prove they’re Dutch. The second, from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Narrenturm, has the Silesian protagonist having to prove his Polishness by saying soczewica, koło, miele, młyn [sot͡ʂeviʦa, kowo, miele, mwɨn], apparently a traditional shibboleth; he retaliates by telling the ferryman to say stół z powyłamywanymi nogami [stuw s povɨwamɨvanɨmi nogami], a Polish tongue twister. Fun stuff, and you’ll want to read bulbul’s explications and additions.

Unrelated, but in case anyone in interested in the acoustics of the theater at Epidaurus (I was there, and you really can hear a whisper from the stage in the back row), Nature has an interesting article on the subject (via Anggarrgoon).


  1. paulelastic says

    This wikipedia article is a real gem

  2. Wow, it sure is—they have both the Dutch and Polish ones, as well as many, many others! Here‘s the direct link, and thanks!

  3. would be more accurate as [mjele] (that’s not counting palatalised consonants, vowel quality etc.)

  4. Er, ‘miele’ would.

  5. You’re probably right, but I just copied what bulbul had.

  6. While it’s still impressive that the original poster can do it in Dutch, Paul Verhoeven’s Soldaat van Oranje was a film adaptation of a novel by the same name, not a novel itself. It is an excellent movie, as I can personally attest, but it is not the case that the same man who brought us the film of Starship Troopers wrote a novel about the Second World War!

  7. AJ,
    you are, naturally, perfectly correct: [mjele] or perhaps [mʲjele] would have been more acurrate.
    “Höyryjyrä”, that’s the Finnish one I could not remember! “Löylyä” was another one the Finns used on me :o)

  8. Your comments about the remarkable acoustic properties of Epidaurus (constructed when?) were interesting.
    There is a Roman theatre at Jerash, in Jordan, built sometime in the first few centuries AD, where exactly the same happens. I sat on the uppermost tier, and asked someone else to go down onto the stage and say a few words at conversational level.
    I could hear, and understand, exactly what they said.
    When the Brit Victorians built the Albert Hall, they consciously constructed to the same ‘Classical’ design, while knowing nothing about acoustics (the word wasn’t even invented then) but got the right results.
    That’s why the ‘Ancient Rockers’ like Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, etc prefer to play the Albert Hall (opened 1871) than the Festival Hall (opened in the early 1950s, and forever re-jigged acoustically, since – it re-opens in June 2007)
    There are Roman/Greek theatres scattered all around the Mediterranean with roughly the same properties.
    Our sainted William Shaksper tried, with Burbage & co, to build the Globe Theatre with the same properties, but it more or less followed the design of the simplest of Syrian village theatres built at least a thousand years before.
    Richard Parker
    Siargao Island, The Philippines.
    My website at is about the island and its people, coastal early humans, fishing, coconuts, bananas and whatever took my fancy at the time.

  9. michae farris says

    on miele: I think [mʲele] might be best, since after some consonants softening [ʲ] and the palatal glide [j] are contrasted (though this is not indicated in writing).
    As in dania [‘danʲa] ‘dishes (components of a meal)’ and Dania [‘danja] ‘Denmark’

  10. I quote from J.J. Voskuil’s newest book Onder andere: “De 14e [may, 1940 is meant – bertil], de dag van het bombardement op Rotterdam en de capitulatie, deed mijn vader de voordeur op slot en reden we met zijn vijven in een taxi naar mijn oom en tante in Voorburg. (…) Aan het begin van de Javastraat, vlak bij het plein 1813, werden we aangehouden en moest mijn vader door het raampje tegen een soldaat uit Limburg `Scheveningen’ zeggen om vast te stellen of hij een Nederlander was.”
    Summary: the author’s father had to use the shibboleth Scheveningen in may 1940, when the Germans attacked Holland, to show that he was Dutch. Since this book is supposed to be autobiographical I think the usage of this Shibboleth was already common in the beginning of the war, unlike Bulbul states in his post.

  11. Michael,
    it’s [‘daɲa] vs [‘daɲja].
    ‘Miele’ is [‘mʲjele] (or actually [‘mʲjelɛ]) in my speech, so I’ll stick to that.

  12. michael farris says

    How would you treat the dania, Dania (fotografie, fotografie etc etc) phonemically?
    And what about words like zilustrowany (would it begin [zji-] or [z?i-]*?
    * ? for glottal stop

  13. Hah. I was going to chime in with the Australian-New Zealand “fish and chips” shibboleth, but there it is in Wikipedia. Far out.

  14. acoustics (the word wasn’t even invented then)
    In 1683 Narcissus Marsh, Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin Marsh, wrote one of the Dublin Philosophical Society’s first papers, called “An Introductory Essay on the Doctrine of Sounds, Containing some Proposals for the Improvement of Acoustics.”
    There are probably earlier uses in the OED (don’t have acccess where I am right now), but perhaps only other senses.
    It’s in Johnson’s Dictionary (maybe spelled with a k).

  15. It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht, the nicht.

  16. bertil,
    excellent, thank you very much! I only saw the movie, haven’t had the opportunity to read Roelfzema’s book, so that was pure conjecture on my part.

  17. MMcM: No, the 1683 quote is the first citation.
    “Huh, how about that!” moment from the etymology of acoustic: “The reg. Eng. representative of the Gr. would be acustic.” Why, so it would! (We got the -ou- from French.)

  18. Something weird is going on.
    Both TLF (hope that link works) and Wikipedia claim that Joseph Sauveur coined the word acoustique in French in 1700, twenty years after Marsh. So it cannot be directly from the French.
    The OED quote for acoustic from 1605 is Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, 135:

    This hath Acoustique Art; for the Instrument of hearing is like to the straits and winding within a Cave.

    What I find online for what I think is the right section in the 1605 Bacon in Google Books:

    Are not the organs of the senses of one kind with the organs of reflection, the eye with a glass, the ear with a cave or strait determined and bounded?

    And then 1623 expanded and Latinized:

    ‘Organa sensuum cum organis reflexionum conveniunt. Hoc in perspectiva locum habet; oculus enim similis speculo sive aquis. Et in acoustica; instrumentum enim auditus obici intra cavernam simile. …’

    The quote looks like a translation of that.
    The only place I find the quote itself is Basil Montagu from 1849, with slightly different spelling and surrounding quotation marks.
    It’s hard to say anything definitive, given that there’s a frustrating snippet view involved and multiple older editions that aren’t scanned. The next line after the snippet occurs in some full view works by Montagu and Taylor, but without that one line.
    Maybe the neologism was in Latin, in France or à la mode, thence into English and French.

  19. *mind spins*
    I wonder if anyone’s investigated this?

  20. Anybody got access to PPCEME or EEBO?

  21. MMcM,
    apparently I have access to EEBO. What is your pleasure?

  22. In Bacon’s The twoo bookes of the proficience and advancement of learning 1605, which maybe is the second link above or maybe some URL in the description in the first link (sorry I can’t be specific, I get a login screen), look for

    Splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus

    sub lumine is probably enough. What is the next line?
    What we’ve got in Google Books looks to be Modern English, not Early Modern English, so the question is what other mucking about was done.
    More generally (dunno how powerful the searching is), does Bacon actually use the word acoustic (acoustique / acoustick / etc.) in his works? Does anyone before 1683?

  23. OK, got it: EEBO, First Book, sheet no. 22 (image 69 of 170). The text is not perfectly readable here, but seems to be identical with the version on Google books:
    Are not the Organs of the sences of one kinde with the Organs of Reflection, the Eye with a glasse, the Eare with a Caue or Straight determined and bounded?

  24. Of all the spelling variants I could think of and the system could come up with, I only got 7 hits in 6 records for “acoustick”. None of them in a work by Bacon.
    The earliest match:
    Author: Charleton, Walter, 1619-1707.
    Title: Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms founded by Epicurus repaired [by] Petrus Gassendus ; augmented [by] Walter Charleton …
    Date: 1654

    A Third Argument of the materiality of a Sound, results to us from the Pleasure and Offence, Note in marg: Art. 10. A Third Argument of the Materiality of S unds: or Gratefulness and Ingratefulness of Sounds, as they are Concinnous, or Inconcinnous. For it is highly concordant to truth, that the suavity of a Sound proceeds from hence, that those minute Particles, which enter the ear and move the Auditory Nerve, are in their configuration so accommodate to the Receptaries, or Pores thereof, that they make a gentle, smooth or equal impression on the filaments, of which the Acoustick Nerve consisteth: and on the contrary, the Acerbity, or Harshness of a Sound, only from hence, that the minute particles invading the sensory, being asper or rough in their configuration, in a manner exulcerate, grate, or dilacerate the slender Filaments thereof.

  25. The full list of matches is here.
    Huh, weird. Second search for “acoustick” revealed an earlier match, 1635, in a work entitled “Speculum mundi· Or A glasse representing the face of the world …” by John Swan:

    …and here again, although the eares be two, yet a man can heare but one sound at once, because his acoustick nerves (like to the optick nerves) meet both in one.

  26. Fantastic. Thank you very much.
    It looks to me like the 1605 quotation supposedly from The Advancement of Learning is actually from an early English translation of De Augmentis Scientiarum. This is a complicated time because it’s just when scientists began to be able to write in English instead of Latin while still being taken seriously.
    Two things stand out for me in the list you kindly copied.
    First, the earliest one. John Swan’s Speculum mundi is online here as a bunch of PDFs. The one we want is the last; it’s on page 498 (page 7 left of the PDF), in the The eares section.
    Second, Thomas Blount’s Glossographia Anglicana Nova, because it’s a dictionary. Except when being perverse, dictionaries collect words that other people are already using. It says,

    Acouſticks, (Gr.) are Medicines or Inſtruments which help the Hearing.

    This is the second of Johnson’s definitions

    ACO´USTICKS. n.ſ. [ἀκουστικὰ, of ἀκούω, Gr. to hear.]
    1. The doctrine or theory of ſounds.
    2. Medicines to help the hearing. Quincy.

    and likewise of the OED’s. Perhaps it was the earlier sense.

  27. MMcM,
    my pleasure :o)
    I do like your hypothesis, so the next step would be checking “De Augmentis Scientiarum”.
    And here we go:

    Organa sensum cum organis reflexionum conveniunt.
    Hoc in perspectiva locum habet; oculus enim similis speculo sive aquis. Et in acoustica; instrumentum enim auditus obici intra cavernam simile.

    The word “obici” puzzles me a bit (a derivation of “obicio”, perhaps, but it looks like a noun…), nevertheless, you are apparently dead on.
    As a byproduct of the search, I stumbled across “acousticon”. OED’s first citation is from 1900 (Dorland, W. A. Newman: The illustrated medical dictionary 1901 (ed. 2), 1903 (ed. 3), 1913 (ed. 7)), the earliest hit I got at EEBO was from 1684, in a pamphlet entitled “A third dialogue between the Pope and a phanatick, concerning affairs in England”:

    …and I am told, that if he lay his Ear to the Lobby of a Presbyterian House of Commons, he can, by virtue of that Acousticon, hear at Westminster what is whisper’d in the Vatican;

    That could be connected to the medicines to aid the hearing. Not to mention that it’s an interesting find in itself :o)

  28. It certainly is — it’s not given to many to produce an antedate of over two centuries! You must let them know at once.

  29. Richard J says

    Going up a few comments, maybe because I always sit in the cheap seats, I absolutely hate the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics. It’s like listening to a cheap radio in a particularly echoey bathtub.

  30. Shibboleths were very important in 19th century Taiwan.

  31. Owlmirror says

    Not sure where else to put this (there are several posts about shibboleths), but here’s a possibly new one from a recent article:

    Today, I savor the cacophony of Ukrainian proper, Ukrainian broken like my mother’s, and the hybridized form of Ukrainian-Russian called “surzhyk” when I’m walking down the streets in Kyiv and Lviv. The mass displacement caused by Russia‘s war has made Ukrainians from all parts of the country listen to each other and pick up new linguistic tricks. It is by pronouncing the Ukrainian word for a loaf of bread, “palianytsia,” that a friend is now distinguished from a foe at the military checkpoints around the country. Perfectly pronounced by Russophone Ukrainians, the combination of vowels and consonants makes Russians choke on the word connoting hospitality in the country they invaded.

    I see that the word shows up here:

    паляни́ця (paljanýcja, “a type of bread”)
    IPA(key): /pɐlʲɐˈnɪt͡sʲɐ/.
    During the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, this word was famously used by Ukrainians to identify enemy saboteurs. People from Russia struggle to pronounce it correctly, usually producing something like [pəlʲɪˈnʲitsə] on their first try, with the stressed /i/ being an especially noticeable mistake. The main difficulty for Russians is to pronounce a palatalised /t͡sʲ/, which is extremely rare, especially in such positions. Most Russians also tend to reduce an unstressed /ʲɐ/ to /ʲɪ/.

    Someone tangentally, the Wikt entry on “shibboleth” itself says:

    om Hebrew שִׁבֹּלֶת / שיבולת‎ (šibbōlet, “stream, torrent”), previously thought to come from Hebrew שִׁבֹּלֶת / שיבולת‎ (šibbōlet, “ear of wheat”) .[1]

    [bolding mine] The “stream/torrent” translation for “shibboleth” given is new to me. There are references given in the WikiP article on the topic.

  32. John Cowan says

    I’ve always thought that ‘stream’ was probably the right translation: it would be more likely to come to mind while guarding a ford of the Jordan than ‘ear of wheat’.

    ObMeta: While composing the previous sentence, I found myself blanking on the correct preposition to use with the noun ford. Ford over came to mind first, but besides being semantic nonsense, it was obviously contamination from bridge over. I finally had to consult the OED’s citations to determine that ford of is the idiomatic construction, and I still feel a little funny about it. This may be because the verb ford is transitive, so there is no preposition associated with it.

  33. My intuition said ‘ford across‘, which Google ngrams says is only a little less common

  34. There really isn’t any conclusive argument that I’ve read as to which meaning was intended. Since these are and were homophones, the question seems to be moot.

    There are occurrences of the singular form of the word, both as ‘ear of grain’ and ‘torrent’.

  35. I find the plural “fords of” feels more natural than “ford of.” However, this might just be the influence of Prince Caspian, which was probably where I learned the literal meaning of ford; like mustang, American children are more likely to learn it as a brand name nowadays, before learning the original (rural) meaning of the term. (I think the Fords of Beruna were first* mentioned in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but only in the sequel did their nature as the place of a river crossing become significant.) Moreover, I don’t really have any pragmatic understanding of how large a fording area needs to be to qualify for the plural fords.

    * The issuing of more recent editions of The Chronicles of Narnia in chronological order is, of course, an atrocity.

  36. John Cowan says

    I find the plural “fords of” feels more natural than “ford of.”

    Indeed, it appears in the plural in Judges 3:28 (““Follow me,” he ordered, “for the Lord has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands.” So they followed him down and took possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab; they allowed no one to cross over”) and 12:5-6 (“The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” hey said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time”). But I take that to refer to more than one crossing, rather than a single crossing expressed as a plurale tantum.

  37. Owlmirror says

    “What followed was ten years of almost constant war between the Dragonlords of the Empire and the Easterners, during which the Easterners occupied the area and fought from the surrounding mountains. The Serioli, who departed the area to avoid any of the unfortunate incidents that war can produce, left only their name for the place, which was “Ben,” meaning “ford” in their language. The Easterners called the place “Ben Ford,” or, in the Eastern tongue, “Ben gazlo.”

    “After ten years of fierce battle, the Imperial Army won a great victory on the spot, driving the Easterners well back into the mountains. The Dragonlords who had found the place, then, began calling it “Bengazlo Ford.” The Dragons, wishing to waste as little time on speech as possible, shortened this to Benglo Ford, or in the tongue of the Dragon, which was still in use at the time, “Benglo ara.” Eventually, over the course of the millenia, the tongue of the Dragon fell out of use, and the Northwestern language gained preeminence, which rendered the location Bengloara Ford, which was eventually shortened to Bengloarafurd. The river crossing became the Bengloarafurd Ford, which name it held until after the Interregnum when the river was dredged and the Bengloarafurd Bridge was built.

    The river that the ford is to, or through, is called the Climbing River.

  38. Hebrew Wikipedia has a very interesting discussion of how the Shibboleth incident is translated into various languages that don’t have a phonemic ʃ/s contrast, or even any sibilants at all. To wit,

    • Septuagint: καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ εἰπὸν δὴ στάχυς καὶ οὐ κατεύθυνεν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως ‘Then they said to him, Say now Stachys [ear of grain]; and he did not rightly pronounce it so.’ (Brenton translation)

    • Modern Greek: Σχίββωλεθ ([ʃx]) vs. Σίββωλεθ ([s]).

    • Japanese: シボレテ [ɕiborete] vs. セボレテ [seborete], again exploiting conditioned allophones.

    • Icelandic: sjibbólet vs. sibbólet.

    • Gilbertese: teiboreta [teipoɾeta] vs. tiboreta [sipoɾeta].

    • Maori: hiporete vs. iporete.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    None of the Oti-Volta languages distinguishes s/ʃ, so I duly looked at some translations …

    The Kusaal BIble just cheats, with shibbolef (sic) versus sibbolef, presumably on the assumption that anybody sophisticated enough to read the Bible at all is familiar with the foreign sound – and spelling – “sh.”

    The Mooré Bible makes more of an effort, with sɩbolɛte versus fɩbolɛte and a helpful footnote.

    The Ditammari Bible does even better, with sibodɛɛ versus cibodɛɛ.

    The Welsh Bible does the same as the Kusaal (shibboleth/sibboleth), though modern Welsh does actually have /ʃ/: it just doesn’t usually spell it that way.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Now I think of it, the Ditammari one would actually work (using cibodɛɛ as the OK one) the next time the Batammariba are faced with a horde of invading Mossi. (I don’t think this has ever actually happened, but there’s no harm in having contingency plans in place.)

    [I’ve just discovered that “Batammariba” means “builders” (= Kusaal tammɛɛdib.) One can learn even from Wikipedia.]

  41. The (modern, critical) Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate has sebboleth—tebboleth. The (16th century) Clementine edition has Scibboleth—Sibboleth. Italians.

  42. The Codex Amiatinus has sebboleth and thebboleth (see here).

  43. I have to say, thebboleth is a very funny word.

  44. I’d crack up saying it even if I were trying to save my life at a ford.

  45. Elmer Fudd the Gileadite, gun muzzle pointing at Ephraimite Daffy Duck…

    (Ed.: Porky Pig would be more consistent, but Elmer has the necessary murderousness.)

    But seriously, thanks, Xerîb. It’s shocking, not to use the word lightly, that the word, written in the absolutely clear uncial of the Amiatinus, is mistranscribed in the Stuttgart edition, as well as the 5th edition of Weber and Gryson’s Biblia Sacra Vulgata, footnoted variants included. This is not an obscure book, and millions have read its printed editions over the last 500 years. Even the Gutenberg Bible has thebboleth.

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