I want to talk about shibboleths of Colorado. First, what’s a shibboleth? I had never heard the word until I was in my 30s, and I bet a lot of you haven’t heard it, either.
According to Dictionary.com, the word means “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.”
Some 20th Century History
I first heard of the concept when I was visiting Amsterdam sometime right around the year 2000. The tour guide told us a story about the 2nd World War. Netherlands (aka Holland, aka “The” Netherlands) was resisting the Nazis. And the locals knew – or at least suspected – that there were German spies afoot. How do you tell if someone who is pretending to be Dutch is actually a German spy?
In case you don’t know the languages and have never heard them, Dutch and German are somewhat similar. Not as similar as American English is to British English (aka real English), but similar enough that if you know German, you can probably read a newspaper written in Dutch and get the gist of an article. However, the spoken languages sound pretty different. There are some sounds in Dutch that just don’t exist in German. And some words that are nearly impossible for a German to say correctly.
Anyhow, there’s one particular word that was used as a password in WWII. If you thought someone was a German spy pretending to be Dutch, you’d force them to try to say this word. And if they couldn’t say it right, you’d put them on the firing line.
Is that story true, or just something the tour guide told us as a joke? Well, I did some googling, and found this video where someone explains the same story. Go listen for yourself, if you care: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BDFjpVdKH8
Some Biblical History and Etymology
So where does the word “shibboleth” come from? It was the name of a place near the River Jordan. At some point in Old Testament times, a couple tribes were at war, as was so popular back then. And here’s what happened, according to the book of Judges:
And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan.
In other words, one tribe could pronounce the “sh” sound and one could not. Ever since, that sort of thing has been called a shibboleth.
Relatively Modern Times
There are shibboleths in and around Colorado – places that have names that are pronounced differently depending on who you are. This sort of thing has interested me for a while, and so I wanted to share some of them with you.
The first one is so famous that it’s mentioned in Wikipedia (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_shibboleths, and that is the town of Buena Vista. If you know Spanish, you are probably tempted to pronounce that place name as you would in Spanish, something like BWEN-na VEE-sta. But no! Here in Colorado we pronounce it BYOO-na VISS-sta.
That’s not all that wacky. We have a lot of place names around here that came from Spanish but got anglified over the years of occupation by English-speakers. Just downstream of Buena Vista is the town of Salida, which is also Spanish, of course. But nobody pronounces is sa-LEE-da, as you would in Spanish. Here it’s sa-LYE-da. There’s a town in the southwest part of the state called Mancos. It’s “mispronounced” by so many tourists that last time I was there the town’s liquor store had put up a giant sign for everyone to see as they approach: IT’S PRONOUNCED MAIN-KISS
Here’s a weird variant; is this a shibboleth? In the southeast part of the state, there’s a river that was named so long ago that the name came from French explorers, not Spanish. It’s the Purgatoire. In French, that’s pronounced sorta like PURR-ga-twarr. But the American miners who came to the area in the Colorado Gold Rush didn’t speak very good French, so they started calling it something more like PICK-ka-twire. Eventually the government board that decides what place names are official decided the river would be called Purgatoire. But strangely they also decided the canyon the river flows through is the Picketwire Canyon. It’s pronounced the same, but has two spellings, depending on if you mean the river or the canyon.
In Denver we have some street names that are shibboleths. Acoma Street is pronounced uh-CO-ma, though in New Mexico that name is AH-co-ma. You’ve heard of the Galapagos Islands, pronounced ga-LOP-a-gos. Well, the Denver street is pronounced gal-a-PAY-go. I’m not kidding.
I’m sure there are other geographic names in Colorado like this that I can’t think of at the moment. If you can think of more, leave me a comment. No doubt I’ll think of more as soon as I press the Publish button on this.