Shibboleth, Sibboleth: pronouncing international Englishes
‘Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right’ says Judges 12:6 of the King James Bible. The word Shibboleth was adopted more broadly to refer to language which can be used to identify those who belong (or rather, do not belong) to a particular group and has continued evolving towards more general ‘catchphrase’ meanings. In the Biblical account, the Ephraimites spoke the same Hebrew language as the Gileadites, but a distinctive regional feature was their use of the sound s where the Gileadites used sh – in much the same way that we can often tell which part of the English-speaking world someone is from based on their accent (pronunciation) or dialect (pronunciation, vocabulary, and/or grammar).
Both British and American pronunciations are the norm nowadays in OED; subscribers can see (and now hear) where the two varieties differ in their pronunciations of each word. But what do we do about peerie, bredda, kiasu, and bombora, clearly words used in English but which are most associated with varieties of English outside of England or America? Historically, OED had only a little written coverage of words from some other British Isles and Commonwealth varieties of English, but this year OED has gone truly global with its coverage of World Englishes. In addition to adding words from a widening range of English varieties, all such words have been getting their own regional pronunciations: peerie gets its Scottish English pronunciation; bredda gets its Caribbean one; kiasu its Singapore and Malaysian; bombora its Australian English and New Zealand English pronunciations.
To date, region-specific pronunciations for words from 10 varieties of English have been added to the British and American, namely Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Caribbean, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysian, and Philippine English. Each of these varieties has been researched and given its own pronunciation set, reflecting the main features of the variety. Together, they are a celebration of the evolution of English as it has spread around the world, yet many words are associated with multiple regions and not always in combinations we might expect! I’ve given a few of my personal favourites below. You can see from the transcriptions if the pronunciations differ between varieties, or you can listen to the audio by visiting the OED entry – just click on the links below the flags.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for play-play.
This is no play-play word – it’s a real colloquial word which appears to have independently formed from creole in the Caribbean and from Afrikaans in South Africa. Of all the varieties now represented in OED, the Caribbean English pronunciation model was the most challenging to create. There are dozens of different varieties of English spoken across the Caribbean, but it’s impractical to have separate ways of showing each one in OED. So rather than being ‘Jamaican’ or ‘Trinidadian’ or ‘Bahamian’, the pronunciations reflect the most common features found in Caribbean varieties, slightly weighted by the number of speakers.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for rightify.
A wonderful word from Irish, Scottish, and Newfoundland Englishes. In OED, Newfoundland pronunciations are shown using the general Canadian model, but with a more Newfoundland-specific flavour to the pronunciations where possible and appropriate.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for timeous.
Heard in Scottish, Northern Irish, and various African Englishes. Like with the Newfoundland-Canada setup, Northern Irish pronunciations in OED are shown using a broad ‘Irish English’ model but with a slightly more North-specific flavour to the pronunciations where possible (and only if almost exclusive to Northern Ireland).
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for nuttin’.
A colloquial way of expressing ‘nothing’, but it’s quite widespread. It’s documented in American, Irish, and Caribbean Englishes. Certainly in many cases there would be a glottal stop instead of or as well as a tin-like t, but that’s a level of detail not shown in OED.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for char siu.
Getting hungry just thinking about this one! Unsurprisingly this word is a borrowing from the Cantonese into Hong Kong English and Singapore & Malaysian English.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for driver.
This word has evolved meanings specific to different areas, but which can still be traced to a common root and included under the same entry. One Irish-specific meaning is that of an overseer or bailiff, while in Australian and New Zealand sheep-shearing it may refer to a leather strap on hand-shears.
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for parrotfish.
One word, but it can mean one of three different types of fish depending on where you say it. In Britain and America, it is likely to be interpreted as a beaked fish of the Scaridae family. In Australia and New Zealand, a brightly coloured fish of the Labridae family. In South Africa, it’s most likely a beaked fish of the Oplegnathidae family. Not confusing at all…
And some of the more interesting entries pronunciation-wise are where you can see bigger differences between the varieties (allowing for minor differences in spelling), as in:
To listen to the audio, visit the OED entry for deoch an doris.
Ok, so the expansion of OED’s coverage of World Englishes is unlikely to mean that you’ll sound like a native the next time you’re asked to say Shibboleth. But it does mean that the next time you’re asked to snig a log by an Australian, told by a Canadian that it’s unrinded, and then invited to join your Malaysian colleague at the local kopitiam, you can easily find out what they mean and reply in kind. And in the meantime, you can indulge yourself in the glorious diversity of English sounds ringing around the globe.