What am I? You can lose your keys and your virginity. But you can’t lose me.

What am I?

I have been around since the first modern human. I am a part of all you humans. Yes, I am a part of you too.

You can lose your keys, your temper and your virginity, but I am almost impossible to lose. If you haven’t lost me by the time you are a teenager, you’ve probably got me for life.

I carry your identity. For some that means status and power. For others, I may encourage suspicion and distrust. At worst, I have been a tool of death.

Dolly Parton has an unmistakable one. It twangs like a banjo. Maurice Chevalier and Thomas Picketty have strong ones. The United Kingdom, despite its size, is full of them. You can find a different one every 40 or so kilometres.

Yes, we are talking about the linguistic marker that identifies you as an ally or neighbour, or as a stranger or a threat. I am your accent.

Accent is the way of pronouncing a language. It is also a key tool in how we process information about another human. It is one of the front-line litmus tests we use to include, and sometimes brutally exclude.

Historically, the Hebrew word shibboleth refers to an ear of corn (épi de maïs). Today, in English, shibboleth means a linguistic password: A way of speaking (an accent, pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by a group of people to identify another person as a member, or more importantly, as a non-member.

The book of Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites failed their language test and were slaughtered. They had a different accent.


Shibboleth appears in a dark and bloody passage in the Bible. The book of Judges tells of the defeat of the Ephraimites by Gileadite soldiers, who armed with spears and holding a shibboleth (an ear of corn) blocked refugees from crossing the Jordan River. Each person who wanted to cross the river was shown a shibboleth and asked what it was. The Ephraimites, unlike the Gileadites, had no ‘sh’ sound in their language. They pronounced the word with an ‘s’.

The book of Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites failed their language test and were slaughtered. They had a different accent.

This is how the King James Bible recounts the massacre:

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 to him, Are you an Ephraimite? If he said, No; Then said they to 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.

The Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina organised the slaughter of an estimated 20,000 Haitians (perhaps many more) over a five-day period in 1937. It is remembered as the Parsley Massacre. This time, soldiers were armed with a sprig of parsley (un brin de persil). The Spanish word for parsley is perejil. Haitians spoke French and Creole and did not pronounce the word with the Spanish trill sound. Another failed language test. They paid with their lives.

US soldiers in the Pacific used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth (language password) to challenge unidentified persons during World War II. For non-Americans it was an unfamiliar term, but for Japanese, who have difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘l’, it was almost impossible to pronounce.

It’s no wonder accent neutralization or accent reduction has become a growing part of language learning. If you sound like a native, your chances of survival, at least financially and professionally, can greatly increase.

The UK is one of the most accent-obsessed countries in the world. The more neutral accent is called received pronunciation or RP.  It is the best known and most exported English accent. Think of BBC newsreaders, Dame Judi Dench and James Bond 007. Ironically, it’s spoken by only about three per cent of the population. It’s the accent that English learners feel most comfortable with. Here’s Rowan Atkinson playing the devil:

Heightened RP is the sound of the English upper class; the sound of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey and the Queen herself.

Why are the English so obsessed by their tribal accents?

Regional accents not only reveal where people are from, but also reveal social classes. Broad regional accents are a barrier to social mobility. Many people who work in London have a RP or neutral accent for work and on the weekends return to their villages and towns and start speaking with their natural broad accent.

Elocution lessons or softening accents in the UK is a burgeoning business.

The RP British accent was judged the world’s sexiest accent in 2018 by Time Out magazine. French finished in second and Italian was in third place.  But what is a British accent? It could be any of these…

Or maybe even this one.



Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

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