We are often corrected by others (as much as we correct others) on the proper pronunciation of words. Luckily, improper pronunciation is rarely consequential (other than sparking debates such as how to pronounce the word “gif”). However, on numerous occasions throughout history, this was not the case.
During World War 2, American soldiers in the Pacific Theatre came up with a questionable way of detecting enemy soldiers pretending to be allies to sneak in to bases. If a suspicious person was to approach a checkpoint claiming that they were an American or Filipino soldier, the sentry would ask them to say a certain word. The word was “lollapalooza” – an American colloquialism for something that is exceptional and extraordinary. The basis for this test was that Japanese people tend to pronounce the English letter “l” as “r” due to the difference in the two languages. Therefore, if the person was to repeat back “rorra-” they would be immediately shot.
This seems like a highly inaccurate method. What if they were an American soldier who had a bad head cold, or a lisp? But this type of racial profiling by the way someone pronounces a certain word has been commonly used throughout history to filter out people of certain races. Lollapalooza is an example of a shibboleth – a word that can distinguish people of a certain race by their inability to properly pronounce it.
The word comes from the Biblical story of the Ephraimites. When the Gileadites were invaded by the Ephraimites, they fought back and repelled the Ephraimites, who tried to retreat by crossing the River Jordan. The Gileadites planned ahead by securing the river so that they could capture the Ephraimites. They ordered each person crossing the river to say the word “shibboleth”. Because the Ephraimite’s dialect did not include a way to pronounce the “sh” sound, they would repeat back “sibboleth” and were killed on the spot.
Unfortunately, shibboleths have typically been used to identify members of a certain race so that they could be massacred. Nowadays, shibboleths are used in a more light-hearted manner. For example, New Zealanders and Australians mock each other on how each pronounce the words fish and chips. Because New Zealanders pronounce the “i” with a shorter sound, Australians tease that they say “fush and chups”. On the other hand, New Zealanders mock Australians on their long “i” sounds that make it sound as if they are saying “feesh and cheeps”.