A shibboleth is a word that identifies you as being a member of a specific social, cultural, ethnical, or other group. The term comes from the Bible when, in ancient Israel, an outpost was set up at the crossing of the Jordan River. Anyone who attempted to cross was asked to say the word shibboleth. Because the enemy was unable to form the sh sound (they said sibboleth), they were easily identified and killed. Since then, shibboleths have come to mean any word that sets you apart from others.
Every language has shibboleths. Some common English shibboleths are words like ain’t, gonna, like, and so on. You also find shibboleths in the pronunciation of certain terms like creek (crik). Not all shibboleths are necessarily bad. For example, the New York dialect typically softens the r sound. That’s not necessarily a negative, but it does identify New Yorkers. The same with jargon. Jargon is often seen as a rite of passage: if you know the jargon, you are in. In that sense, jargon is both a positive within the group and a negative for those on the outside.
Other types of shibboleths include slang, swear words, codes, religious terms, accents, baby talk, and so on. Remember: a shibboleth is any word or words that identify a person with a specific group of people. If you really wanted to carry the concept too far, you could even argue that music, dress, cars, homes, and so on are all types of non-linguistic shibboleths.
That’s really all there is to shibboleths. Now that you know what they are, listen to the next person you talk to and try to identify the shibboleths they use. Even harder, try to identify your own. On of my biggest is the way I pronounce the word crayons. I have never said cray-ons; instead I saw crens like pens. Each time I say the term, people tend to recognize the difference and tie me down to a specific group of people (normally dorks). But that is just the way I say it, and it is how I’ve always said it.
One final note: It is important to realize that word choice or pronunciation is NOT necessarily an indicator of intelligence just as the car you drive isn’t necessarily an indication of success or wealth. Many people automatically limit people who say ain’t or other common shibboleth words to the ranks of the uneducated. Just remember that Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all used ain’t as did many other highly intelligent and influential people. Another common shibboleth is creek when it is pronounced crik. The argument is made that the double e in creek must be pronounced with a hard e sound, and anyone who does differently is uneducated. Well… say this word: been. Sorry, but that sound you just made is the exact same sound that many people make when they pronounce creek as crik.
Going back to my shibboleth, my pronunciation of crayons is really just a an easier way of saying the original term. If you look closely at the vowels, you will see that my version is a simpler and faster way. In some ways, it is the exact same thing that you do when you replace going to with gonna. Is either way more or less correct? More importantly, you do the same type of simplification with most words that you say. When we speak, we tend to slightly slur our speech to make it easier for our tongues and mouths to form the intricate shapes and sounds. Say warmth out loud. Why did you add a p sound? You did it because it is easier to transition form an m to a th if you release your lips after making the m sound. Releasing your lips like that will always make some variation of the p sound. Does that make it incorrect to pronounce warmth that way?
Most errors that we perceive in speech are just replicas of speech patterns you yourself use. In truth, most errors have been shown to be much more logical in their origins than some of the insanities that we currently see in English. Soon, I’ll review the word ain’t to show you just how perfect, logical, and INTELLIGENT – let me say that again -INTELLIGENT that particular word is.
Remember to try and identify the shibboleths you see. In fact, post the most unusual ones in a comment if you like. Oh, and if’n yuz evuh limit somebody’s smarts based off uh the way they yap, yuz jus’ proved that ya jus’ don’ git it.