Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Shibboleth

[This is the 19th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

At the core of my own fascination with signs and symbols is a long-standing love of alphabets.  Maybe it's no coincidence that the very idea of the A-to-Z challenge got me thinking of symbols!  In fact, I still have a few posts left in the queue that have to do with special letters... It's just a coincidence, I think, that we had to wait all the way to S to see the first of them.

Anyway, in English there are some "exotic" sounds that don't correspond to a single letter of the alphabet.  One that always interested me is the "SH" sound -- strictly speaking, the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant.  Here's a selection of how a few other alphabets deal with this sound:

The first (blue) one is the Hebrew letter Shin.  This letter has some interesting stories attached to it... the most famous of which is the Biblical tale -- from Judges chapter 12 -- of the word Shibboleth.  The Ephraimites took advantage of the fact that their enemies, the Gileadites, habitually mis-pronounced the "Sh" sound as "S", and rooted out sneaky infiltrators by demanding they pronounce the word.  42,000 of them failed to do it, and were slaughtered!

Some happier "Shin" anecdotes include the fact that the hand gesture made by the Jewish priestly Kohanim, when giving a blessing, is supposed to be in the form of the letter Shin. A young Leonard Nimoy saw this in the temple, and thus was born the Vulcan "Live long and prosper" gesture!  There's also the story of a four-pronged version of the letter Shin, which today is mysterious and unmanifest, but will become known to the world when the Messiah comes.

Anyway, the regular old three-pronged version probably gave rise to the Coptic and Cyrillic letters for the "Sh" sound (the 2nd and 3rd ones in my image above).  The fourth one is familiar to calculus students as the integral sign, but it's how the Sh sound is rendered in the International Phonetic Alphabet.  (Now there's a treasure trove of weird symbols and glyphs!)

The final (red) symbol above is a special one.  I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I first wondered why the "Sh" sound doesn't have its own letter.  Thus, I set about to create one!  This pretzel-twisted "R" is what I came up with, and the name of the letter was also a bit of a tongue-twister:  "Double-bull."  (Inspired by the spoken name of the letter "W" I suppose?)  Who knows what lurks within the mind of a geeky child?!  :-)

Finally, I can't let this go without pointing to an interesting online challenge.  Fans of designing fonts (and other types of typography) were asked to come up with new letters for the sh, ch, and th sounds.  Here's an example of my favorite one:

The new symbol looks enough like the two letters that inspired it to make it easy to understand what it's supposed to be... but it's still clearly a new and unique "letter."  (Kudos to designer Jongseong!)

I don't have too many concrete suggestions for RPG players here, unfortunately.  I guess one lesson one could take away from the Biblical Shibboleth is that world-traveling PCs should try to be mindful of the local dialects!  :-)  If one comes into a new village and speaks like someone from far far away, one may get doors shut in one's face -- or worse!


  1. Tikkun Olam HaBa.

    And, for now, to those moments which seize the chest.

    Another superior post, Cygnus.

  2. What a fascinating post, Cygnus...I love that Old Testament story! Thanks for the history and culture lesson...enjoy the remainder of the Challenge...

  3. Thanks, both. One week to go! :-)