The Shibbolethic Function of Language

 Voice as a matter of life or death



Please, relax. You haven’t forgotten this from your Freshman Seminar on Poststructural Linguistics. I made it up.

Now allow me to justify coining such ugly jargon.

You may recall the word Shibboleth, which names a word or phrase used to identify a group’s insiders (and outsiders). It’s historically been something from your native tongue that your enemies can’t pronounce.

The ancient Gileadites noticed that the Ephraimites had a different pronunciation for the word shibboleth itself. The word literally meant “the part of a plant containing grains,” but this wasn’t the point. At a strategic crossing, the Gileadites asked all travelers to pronounce the word. If their attempt sounded like “sibboleth,” without the sh, they were smitten on the spot.1

Jephthah leading the Gileadites into battle

Similarly, in the South Pacific during World War II, Allied soldiers asked everyone approaching checkpoints to say “lollapalooza.” Even the best trained Japanese spies had a hard time with that one. A single misplaced sag of the tongue, and bang. That was the end of the would-be infiltrator. 

We’re discussing this because…

Modern uses of shibboleth extend beyond military checkpoints and pronunciation. They extend even beyond language—to fashion, grooming, tattoos, the coffees we order, the Harleys / Vespas we ride, the pit bulls / poodles / feral cats we associate with. But I’d like to keep the discussion focused on language, because that’s what we do around here. 

And I’d like to propose that the shibbolethic function, while present in almost all communication, plays a central role in any language crafted to influence your audience. If you write ads, online content, speeches, grants, user interfaces, presentations, AI personalities, legal arguments … you’re already neck-deep in the shibbolethic.

For context, here are some of the other, more written-about functions of language, as categorized by linguists and philosophers of language:

-Conveying a literal message
-Expressing Emotion
-Commanding, requesting
-Performing an action
-Establishing a connection

The names and taxonomies of these functions aren’t completely settled; for the sake of thoroughness I’ll address them below in the TL;DR section. What’s striking for our purposes is that I can’t find anything precisely describing a Shibbolethic function in the canons of linguistics and semiotics. Which is why I had to make up the name. 

This isn’t to say I made up the idea. I suspect every halfway-socially-functional person understands it intuitively, on some level. Consciously or not, we use language as a shibboleth in almost every interaction. I can think of three basic ways:

Shibbolethic Functions

  1. Presenting yourself as a member of your audience’s group (a new hire trying to fit in with her peers; an undercover cop playing the part of a gang member). Let’s call this the Password Function. It’s closest to the original use of shibboleth.
  2. Presenting yourself as a member of a different group, typically one with elevated status or authority (a teacher lecturing students; the Queen of England addressing the populace). Let’s call this the Podium Function.
  3. Any other use of language crafted to influence perception of your authority, class, education, profession, position, intelligence, or likability. If you use language thoughtfully, you’ll probably find an element of this function in everything you write or say.2  Let’s call this the Identity Function.

Please don’t mistake all this for deception, even if it can be used to that end. Such is the risk with any rhetorical tool (see Willy Loman vs. Socrates). 

Interpreting language to discover who’s speaking—as separate from what’s being said—appears to be fundamentally human. Your listeners are doing it whether you like it or not. Which means that you’re always communicating codes about who you are and where you stand, like it or not.

It follows that you’ll want to be aware of what you’re communicating. And you’ll probably want to be in control of it—especially if you’re communicating professionally. This is no different from deciding to wear your sharpest suit when meeting the CEO, your shiniest track jacket and chains to the club afterwards, your fleece athleisure while nursing your hangover tomorrow with your cat. It’s all you—just different presentations for different audiences and contexts. 

When we adapt to different audiences and contexts by changing language rather than clothes, we’re likewise switching between sets of shibboleths. Linguists call this code switching. Consider these two passages by a professional writer:

And for the dough I raise, gotta get shit appraised
No disrespect to you, make sure you word is true
I’m takin’ wages down in Vegas just in case Tyson
have a major night off, that’s clean money, the tax write-off
You ain’t seen money in your life, 
when it comes to this cheese y’all like Three Blind Mice
A smokin’ bro, who pump Willie Ike spokes
The furthest you Chiles been is the Pocanos


One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty, because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. 


Here’s an example of someone fluent in (at least) two very different ways of speaking. His mastery of code switching has allowed him to traverse the worlds of 1980s Brooklyn streets, hip-hop arena stages, and the dozens of executive suites of his business empire. 

We need only look at his records—platinum and corporate tax—to know that his shibboleths pass the test with both hip-hop audiences and investment bankers.  

Jay-Z’s passages also illustrate that the shibbolethic function is less about what you say than how you say it. It’s a function of manner, which can include vocabulary, pronunciation, idioms, locution, register, tone.

In branding, as in literature, there’s a shorthand term for these qualities: Voice.

It’s such a simple, everyday word; we throw it around without thinking much about it. This can lead us to treat it as an adornment to be tacked onto an idea. I’m hoping that the ungainliness of shibbolethic might slow us down a bit, so we can see voice as much more than this—not just a surface treatment, but a life-or-death set of strategies. 

Granted, If you get the voice wrong, your readers probably won’t smite thee and thine employer. But they’ll stop trusting, stop caring, stop reading. For you as a writer that’s death on the page.

I don’t mean to suggest that all brand writers and copywriters give short shrift to voice. Some common approaches even flirt with indulgence. The question is if these approaches adequately address all the important functions. 

Here’s some voice analysis from a style guide that I worked on as a team member:

Sample from Adient Style Guide, brand idea and verbal identitySample from Adient Style Guide, verbal identity

This kind of explication goes on for pages; it’s hardly thoughtless. But notice that it focuses on the identity aspects of voice (what does this style say about me) as opposed to the more complex shibbolethic aspects (what does this style say about me in relation to the reader).

In this case I doubt it’s a problem, considering that it’s for a B2B setting—an automotive company selling to other automotive companies. They’re talking to people who are mostly like themselves.

This allows them the luxury of focusing on identity. 

With other kinds of brands, you’ll ignore that shibbolethic relationship at your peril. In other words, you may look suave in your new tunic—but the Gileadites won’t necessarily be impressed. And they’ve got the swords. 

How to harness the power of the shibbolethic

You’re probably pretty good at it intuitively, because you’ve been practicing the art of being-you-in-the-world-through-language since you were a toddler. This is assuming you’ve figured out who you are, at least in terms of all the broad-stroke identity questions. And assuming that you’re familiar with your audience. 

If you’re speaking or writing on behalf of someone else—say, an organization or a brand—it gets trickier. And trickier still if the audience isn’t intimately familiar to you. This is a typical professional writing situation, and presents many open questions.

Since the shibbolethic function depends on your identity and group membership in relation to the identity and group membership of your audience, you need to start with a bit of strategic thinking:

1. Who is the audience? What group do they belong to?

2. Who am I (who is the brand / institution I represent)?

3. What are the personae or groups that this audience will listen to?

4. What personae could reasonably belong to my brand / institution?

5. What personae reside within the intersection of 3 and 4? 

6. Which of these, when enacted in language, is most likely to fall plausibly within the code-switching vocabulary of the brand I represent? To fall practically within my own code-switching vocabulary as a writer?

If this makes anything clear, it should be that the process is more a negotiation than a formula. It requires sensitivity to language, to social cues, to rhetoric. It’s not a skillset that can be taught in a few paragraphs. 

But I believe there’s value in having the conversation framed this way. It’s not just about “what do we wish to project?” It’s not just about “what’s the language of our audience?” It’s about establishing a strategic and rhetorical relationship between those questions. Think of it as:

Which version of me will you listen to?
What does that version sound like?

Here’s a failure story. I got hired to write copy for a company that sold duffel bags, backpacks, and leisure gear to college students, by which the company meant: frat boys. They wanted me to write the copy in the voice of the frat boy, which is not difficult; just channel all your aggressive male entitlement, loosen up your vocal chords with a few pumps from the keg, and bloviate. 

But I didn’t think this was the right voice. I didn’t think frat boys wanted to buy expensive, somewhat aspirational stuff from other frat boys. Which is not to say they want to buy it from their dads or priests or college deans, either. I thought the ideal voice would be of someone who understood them, who’s walked in their shoes, but who’s been around the globe a few more times, and doesn’t have to work at sounding hip or like one of the kids.

In other words, a grownup—a cool one who isn’t trying too hard.

I resigned the account, because the owner just wanted frat-speak. It would have been an easy gig. But I didn’t want to invest my professional time into bad strategy and bad writing.

How often do you see this mistake? A company straining to sound like the kids it’s selling to? 

Get the grammar right

No one likes a grammar nazi. Nothing kills a conversation faster than scoldings over who/whom or less/fewer. It’s little surprise when the language snoot is the loneliest kid on the playground.

But if you’re a writer, it’s your burden. I’m not speaking as a prescriptivist. Trust me—I took some linguistics in college. I get that prescriptivist grammar is basically an arbitrary and oppressive tool used to keep an elite group in power (see the TL;DR section below). 

I’m harping on this because grammar is, of course, another shibboleth. More broadly, the dominant dialect—in our case Standard Written English—is a sea of shibboleths, with grammar its deepest trench. If you need to address a group for whom SWE is the linguistic shibboleth (and it’s probably a group with money and power—see above) you need to know the code.

None of this is to suggest you have to write everything in SWE. Shibbolethic considerations might push you to the dialects of punk rockers, of rodeo cowboys, of Southern shrimp fishermen, of teen badminton players, of aging surfers. Just know that you’ll probably fall back on SWE more than any other dialect. And it’s just about the least forgiving, because the rules are codified, inscribed in both textbooks and the sensitive ears of all snoots.

Breaking these rules exacts a high price: when I see an ad for a serious company, written for an educated audience, and there’s a grammar gaffe, I lose trust. Immediately. If they don’t know how to make a sentence, how am I supposed to trust them to make a car?

Laziness and incompetence are rarely useful coded messages.

You should be aware of the gray areas in addition to the simple rules. You might find cases where snoots make a big deal about a rule, even if language historians will tell you it’s nonsense or based on misunderstanding.

For example, using the word “like” as a conjunction, instead of “as,” “as if,” or “as though.” My very own father used to chide me over this one. And as a certifiable brat, I rebelled, going as far as consulting the Merriam Webster usage panel, which confirms that this use of like has been entrenched for over half a millennium:

Like has been used as a conjunction in ways similar to as since the 14th century. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries it was used in serious literature, but not often; in the 17th and 18th centuries it grew more frequent but less literary. It became markedly more frequent in literary use again in the 19th century […] There is no doubt that, after 600 years of use, conjunctive like is firmly established. It has been used by many prestigious literary figures of the past, though perhaps not in their most elevated works; in modern use it may be found in literature, journalism, and scholarly writing. 

Seems like an open-and-shut case, but the entry continues:

While the present objection to it is perhaps more heated than rational, someone writing in a formal prose style may well prefer to use as, as if, such as, or an entirely different construction instead.

But why? Because in the world of the shibbolethic, perception matters more than fact. A clever Ephraimite could have tried arguing that his pronunciation is the historically correct one … but his head would have already landed on the ground next to him. 

The Merriam Webster panelists understand this perfectly, as evidenced by their respect for context. Use like as a conjunction, in good health, they’re telling us—just not in our most formal prose. Which might also be to say: not when our audience is likely to include snoots. Because we will be judged. And any negative judgment distracts from the message, and undermines the readers’ trust.3 

Know your limits!

Just because you know all about the shibbolethic doesn’t mean you can pronounce it. 

Put another way: to use the shibbolethic function of language, you actually need fluency in the style it demands. Don’t try to fake it—you won’t keep your head.

Your audience members are fluent in their own dialect and slang and style and mannerisms-of-the-moment. They’re going to be sensitive to anything that’s the slightest bit off. Because shibboleths work!

If you get the voice wrong, your communication will encode that you’re a poser. Or even a cultural appropriator and wannabe exploiter. 

It gets worse.

Even if you get the shibbolethic function of the language right, you might get outed by any number of extralingual shibboleths. 

As a reducto ad absurdum example, imagine IBM hiring Jay-Z to sell cloud computing services to Brooklyn hip-hop artists. Imagine he agrees to take their money, and hands them something like:

While others kick that Amazon shit,
Me and my conglomerate bring flow to the premises
Up online with a #1 hit: IBM integrated appliances.
We got three platforms, got common SQL,
A engine so streamlined gonna sell, bitches, sell.

Indulge me a minute and pretend this is isn’t just a mashup of content from IBM’s site with lyrics from from Dead Presidents pt 1. Imagine it’s done well, and by the man himself. And imagine that there’s actually a burgeoning market for cloud computing services among Brooklyn hip-hop artists.

The point is: it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s fooled. Jay-Z may have written the copy, but he’s speaking for IBM.  

I. B. Motherf***ing M! A company identified with starched white collars and whatever you might call the opposite of street-cred.

It’s funny as a thought experiment. In real life, failing at a shibbolethic function is usually worse than not showing up at all. 

By the way, if my example seems far-fetched, let’s not forget that this happened:


Microsoft recruiting email; "HEY BAE INTERN!"


I’ll turn over this portion of the lecture to a leading master of the shibbolethic disaster, Mr. Ali G:



1Says the King James Bible:

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 unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto 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.


n.b.  In this essay I’m adopting a voice that’s intended, in part, to convince you that I’m smart, and have fresh ideas about language and rhetoric, so that you’ll hire me. 
     n.b.2  The candor of this footnote is intended, in part, to demonstrate that I’m honest and not being manipulative. 
          n.b.3  I could go on. It’s shibboleths, all the way down.


3 Is this piece an example of formal writing? Does it follow all the rules of SWE? No, and deliberately so. You’ve probably noticed some hallmarks of casualness: contractions, sentence fragments (for rhythm and emphasis), the occasional @&#$%!. When you write about a technical, borderline-academic topic for a general audience, the big challenge, besides clarity, is not scaring off—or boring the pants off of—your reader. An inviting tone that suggests “this is not hard,” and “I don’t take myself too seriously,” can only help.


Jay Z quotations from “Politics as Usual” and his November 16, 2010 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”






TL;DR (in this case: Too Long; Don’t Read)


I was hoping for a more elegant name than Shibbolethic. “Performative” came to mind, but it’s already been taken, first by J.L. Austin, to name the illocutionary “speech act” (see below) and then by Laurent Binet, in his rollicking postmodern buddy/detective novel, The 7th Function of Language, which names a magical type of utterance that can persuade anyone to do anything4 

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet


Beyond this, the shibbolethic function is about more than performance. It’s about exclusion. One of the reasons specialized groups (like, say, academic linguists) use such inscrutable jargon is to keep us rabble out. 

More pervasively, and more darkly, it’s a tool to keep dominant cultural groups in power. Every civilization that’s big enough to be stratified has a “high” or “correct” version of its language. The difference between high and low dialects is always arbitrary, but those who control the institutions (including the schools and the publishers) get to decide. Those who don’t speak the dominant class’s dialect will never have its ear, much less a seat at the table. For a good read that addresses messy ties between usage and power, check out David Foster Wallace’s thoughtful / entertaining / flawed “Tense Present” in Harpers

You may recall the language wars of the 1990s, culminating in the controversial Ann Arbor Decision and Oakland ruling. The line was drawn between old-guard prescriptivists, who considered African American Vernacular English to simply be broken English (something to be fixed), and linguists and teachers who understood AAVE as an English dialect as legitimate as any other. Most of the controversy arose from misunderstanding: the prescriptivists thought classes would be taught in AAVE (which got branded as “Ebonics,” not by linguists). In fact, the proposal was simply to recognize that some students were coming to Standard Written English as a second language, and so for the sake of fairness, would need the same kind of pedagogical help as a student from Mexico or Sweden. 

The students would decidedly not need teachers to continue telling them they were speaking wrong—with the implication that their parents, neighbors, friends, and whole communities were also wrong.

The courts got things mostly right. They explicitly acknowledged what modern linguists hold as axiomatic: that no dialect is intrinsically superior or inferior to another. And they implicitly acknowledged what we all know from observation: that Standard Written English is the de-facto language of power, commerce, and education. Which means that anyone seeking opportunity in America needs to become proficient. 

The courts laid a path for schools to transition students to the language of American wealth and power, without pathologizing the language they speak at home.. 

These dialect issues can be understood as a subset of voice issues. When we’re writing for an audience, we need to consider dialect, both ours and theirs. And since a dialect is, for all practical purposes, a whole language unto itself, this task is not so easy.

The AP Manual of style will serve us if we’re a news organization or for some reason wish to project journalistic credibility. The Chicago Manual of Style will likewise serve us if we’re looking for general academic credibility. The usage panels of more conservative dictionaries (like the American Heritage Dictionary) may serve us if we wish to appeal to snoots. Likewise the usage guides of more liberal dictionaries (like Merriam Webster) may help us find a more democratic appeal.

But none of these crutches will lead to shibbolethic fluency in any particular voice. That comes from listening and from reading and from practicing. Lots of all of it.

As a writer, no one can expect you to have fluency in every imaginable voice. You’d do well to master a few, and to know when to delegate. Diversity in the workplace is important for countless reasons. The need for many fluencies is one of the more obviously mercenary. Please don’t fake the voice of New England old money, or an LA gang member, or a Louisiana creole chef. Find someone else [see Know your limits!, above].

Here be dragons theory

You do not need fluency in semiotics or post-structural linguistics in order to master voice or become an effective communicator. If, however, you’re any breed of language nerd (and you’ve made it this far, so I have my suspicions) you might find the following interesting.

First, for some grounding, here’s the full listing for shibboleth in the unabridged Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. The emphasized definitions relate to my use of shibbolethic:


Forms: 4 s(h)ebolech, 6, 7 schiboleth, 7 schibboleth, 7–9 shiboleth, 7– shibboleth. 

[a. Heb. shiˈbbōleth; in the Vulgate transliterated sciboleth. 

   The word occurs with the senses ‘ear of corn’ and ‘stream in flood’; in the passage now referred to the LXX and Vulgate give the former rendering; mod. commentators prefer the latter, on the ground that on this view the selection of the word is naturally accounted for, as the slaughter took place ‘at the fords of Jordan’. Cf. sibboleth v.] 

1.1 The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6). 

   1382 Wyclif Judges xii. 6 Thei askiden hym, Seye thanne Sebolech [1535 Coverdale Schiboleth, 1611 Shibboleth],‥the which answerde, Shebolech [1388 Thebolech, 1535 Siboleth, 1611 Sibboleth].    1671 Milton Samson 289 In that sore battel when so many dy’d Without Reprieve adjudg’d to death, For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth.    1844 Elphinstone Hist. India II. 73 As some endeavoured to conceal their character, recourse was had to a test like the Jewish Shiboleth.

2.2 transf. a.2.a A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation. 

   1658 Cleveland Rustick Rampant 36 They had a Shibboleth to discover them, he who pronounced Brot and Cawse for Bread and Cheese had his head lopt off.    1660 Fuller Mixt Contempl. xxxviii. 62 It [the word trespasses] is a shiboleth to a child’s tongue, wherein there is a confluence of hard consonants together.    a 1661 ― Worthies, Essex (1662) i. 335, R. was Shiboleth unto him, which he could not easily pronounce.    1827 Scott Two Drovers i, In attempting to teach his companion to utter, with true precision, the shibboleth Llhu, which is the Gaelic for a calf.    1863 Hawthorne Our Old Home, Consular Exper. I. 44 The best shibboleth I ever hit upon lay in the pronunciation of the word ‘been’.    1873 Earle Philol. Eng. Tongue §138 (ed. 2) 139 The TH with its twofold value is one of the most characteristic features of our language, and more than any other the Shibboleth of foreigners.

b.2.b A peculiarity of pronunciation or accent indicative of a person’s origin. 

   1663 [J. Heath] Flagellum or O. Cromwell 123 There were slain [at Worcester] in Field and in Town,‥and in pursuit some 3000, and some 8000. taken prisoners in several places, most of the English escaping by their Shiboleth.    1701 De Foe Trueborn Engl. i. 136 The Customs, Sirnames, Languages, and Manners, Of all these Nations‥Whose Relicks‥ha’ left a Shiboleth upon our Tongue; By which‥you may distinguish Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.    1797 Encycl. Brit. (ed. 3) XIII. 112/1 The commonalty [of Northumberland] are‥remarkably distinguished by a kind of shibboleth or whurle, being a particular way of pronouncing the letter R.

c.2.c loosely. A custom, habit, mode of dress, or the like, which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons. 

   1806 A. Hunter Culina (ed. 2) 192 Custard and apple-pie is the Shibboleth by which an Alderman may be known.    1837 Howitt Rur. Life i. iv. (1862) 40 The sportsman’s shooting-dress is a shibboleth, which introduces him alike to his superiors, to his fellows, and his inferiors.    1885 Dodge Patroclus & Penelope 10 The newly fledged equestrian who makes them [the English hunting-rig and crop] his shibboleth, and who discards as ‘bad form’ any deviation upon the road from what is eminently in place after hounds.    1902 Gosse in Encycl. Brit. (ed. 10) XXXIII. 819/2 Joseph and his Brethren became a kind of shibboleth—a rite of initiation into the true poetic culture.

3.3 fig. A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded. 

   1638 E. Norice New Gospel 3 His followers sequestring themselves to such as were their own way,‥gave themselves to mirth and jollity,‥as if it were the only Shibboleth whereby to be discerned from the miserable Legalists that held mourning and sorrow for sinne.    1687 Dryden Hind & P. iv. 1076 For them‥Their Foes a deadly Shibboleth devise: By which unrighteously it was decreed, That none to Trust, or Profit should succeed, Who would not swallow first a poysonous wicked Weed.    1771 Wesley Serm. xliv. Wks. 1829 VI. 63 But here is the shibboleth: Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil?‥ Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a Heathen still.    1784 Cowper Let. to Newton 21 Feb., The mere shibboleth of a party.    1809 Scott Fam. Lett. (1894) I. v. 146 Knaves and fools invent catch-words and shibboleths to keep them [‘honest’ persons] from coming to a just understanding.    1862 J. Skelton Nugæ Crit. ix. 424 The age‥strives to emancipate itself from the fetters of party shibboleths.    1874 H. R. Reynolds John Bapt. vi. §3. 394 Christians were ready to insist upon the insensate Shibboleth, ‘Except ye be circumcised‥ye cannot be saved’.

b.3.b The mode of speech distinctive of a profession, class, etc. 

   1829 Southey Sir T. More (1831) II. 231 She has assumed the garb and even the shibboleth of the sect.    1849 Macaulay Hist. Eng. iii. I. 400 To that sanctimonious jargon, which was his shibboleth, was opposed another jargon not less absurd.    1884 Graphic 25 Oct. 437/3 Not given to talk stable, as is too often the case with racing men, but putting off the shibboleth of the turf with his race-glasses.

Better-known functions

The phrase “function of language” was introduced by Roman Jacobson, a 20th century Russian-American linguist and literary critic. In his 1960 paper, “Linguistics and Poetics,” he identified six functions:

1. The referential function:  The referential function relates to the thing “spoken of.” It’s usually associated with an element whose truth value (true or false status) is being affirmed or challenged, particularly when this truth value is identical in the real universe and in the “assumptive or reference universe” that is taking it on. This second bit, about universes, is really about context, which is to say, which elements are critical to the meaning of an utterance but are left unsaid? Are we talking about a character in a science fiction novel, about a personal subjective experience, or about something observable to everyone? Is anything left unsaid because of shared history or understanding?

2. The poetic function: focuses on “the message for its own sake” (the code itself, and how it is used) and is the operative function in many poems, song lyrics, and slogans.

3. The emotive function: relates to the Addresser (sender) and is best exemplified by interjections and other sound changes that do not alter the denotative meaning of an utterance but do add information about the Addresser’s (speaker’s) internal state, e.g. “Wow, what a sunset!”

4. The conative function: engages the Addressee (receiver) directly and is best illustrated by vocatives and imperatives, e.g. “Jacobson! Come inside and eat!”

5. The phatic function: is language for the sake of interaction. It emerges in greetings and casual discussions of the weather, particularly with strangers. It also provides the keys to open, maintain, verify or close the communication channel: “Hello?”, “Ok?”, “Hmmmm”, “Bye”…

6. The metalingual (alternatively called “metalinguistic” or “reflexive”) function: is the use of language (what Jakobson calls “Code”) to discuss or describe itself, e.g. “That depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

If this all seems a little dry and limited, it’s probably because you’re a child of the post-modern, post-structuralist era—you learned your way through language in a world built on expansions / challenges to models like Jacobson’s. 

Jacques Lacan and Roman Jacobson perlocuting in 1974

Austin and the Speech Act

J.L. Austin was a 20th century British philosopher of language who proposed that language doesn’t merely describe things or propose ideas, it actually performs actions.5 His classifications of language are more compact, and (in my opinion) a bit more interesting than Jacobson’s:

I. Locutionary (Interpretive Function)

The utterance and its ostensible meaning, comprising phonetic, phatic and rhetic (referential) acts corresponding to the verbal, syntactic and semantic aspects (this would seem to encompass Jacobson’s referential, emotive, poetic, and phatic functions).

II. Illocutionary (Performative Function)

the pragmatic “illocutionary force”” of an utterance; its intended significance as a socially valid verbal action (this is Austin’s innovative observation, the speech act. See examples below).

III. Perlocutionary (Persuasive Function)

An utterance’s actual effect, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something, whether intended or not.

Examples of illocutionary / performative utterances (speech acts):

“I now pronounce you man and wife” 

“You’re under arrest” 

“I order you to …”

“I christen you”

“I sentence you to death”

“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you!” (Islamic)

“I do”  (wedding)

“I do”  (swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth)

“I dedicate this book to …” 

“The court is now in session”

“I bet you $5”

“War is declared”

“I resign” 

“You’re fired”

Austin’s functions can coexist, to one degree or another, in a single utterance. For example, the utterance “You’re under arrest!” has a locutionary function (the addressee is made to understand he’s being arrested), an illocutionary function (an official act is being performed through the words; the addressee is no longer legally free to go) and a perlocutionary function (the addressee may stop and put his hands up. Or may run like hell.)

Metaphor and Metonymy

Jacobson mentioned these foundations of figurative language in his 1956 paper, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Aspects of Aphasic Disturbances,” in which he linked them to mental illness. Structuralist and post-structuralist linguists otherwise paid them little attention. This strikes me as a curious lapse—why, in the heyday of the so-called “linguistic turn,” in which all problems of philosophy (and so the world) were presumed to be rooted in language, would these almost magically powerful functions of language be ignored? Were they too messy? Were they too dangerous to let out of the asylum?

The importance of figurative language was never lost on poets, fiction writers, politicians, advertisers, or prophets. You may notice that these are all professions Plato would have mistrusted—but I suspect he would have mistrusted the poststructuralists even more, so that’s not much help. It may just be that ideas, like shoes, go in and out of fashion especially decisively in France.

Here‘s a quick rundown of figurative devices:

Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase carries a meaning in addition to its literal one; the additional meaning is carried by means of conceptual similarities between overtly stated idea and the implied one. E.g. “all the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players;” “he was the black sheep of the family.” 

From the Greek metapherein, for transference, or to bear / to carry. Metaphor is widely used to describe similar phenomena outside language, especially in the visual arts and design. 

Metonym: A figure similar to metaphor, but where the meaning is carried by association rather than resemblance. E.g. using “Washington” to mean the US government; “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Symbol: More conceptual than linguistic, a symbol is an object or iconic form that has been imbued with meaning through tradition and repetition. It can be evoked in language or in visual representation. E.g. Mt. Fuji; a crucifix; a swastika. 

Allegory: An extended metaphor, often in the form of a long description, or even a story. E.g. any of Aesop’s fables.

Synecdoche: A type of metonym in which a part is used to represent the whole. E.g. “lend me your ears.”

Simile: A construct that simply points to a conceptual resemblance without suggesting substitution. E.g. “it was as boring as watching paint dry.”

Prosopopoeia: A construct that gives human qualities to something inanimate, to increase its affective powers. It’s a form of anthropomorphism used as rhetoric. From the Greek, prósopon “face, person”, and poiéin “to make, to do”. (see pathetic fallacy). E.g. “the storm raged for a day and a night.” 

Figurative language didn’t get much attention from modern linguists until the rise of cognitive linguistics in the late 1980s. This branch of linguistics joined forces with psychology, and saw metaphor and metonymy working at the levels of concepts and structures of the mind.

If we had to condense figurative language to a simple Jacobsonian formula, we might call it the evocative function of language. I’ll leave that to someone else. 

Taxonomy of the shibbolethic

To recap the shibbolethic functions:

1. Password Function: Presenting yourself as a member of your audience’s group 

2. Podium Function: Presenting yourself as a member of a different group, often one with authority.

3. Identity Function: Any other use of language crafted to influence the perception of your authority, class, education, profession, position, intelligence, or likability.

Technically speaking, 1 and 2 could be seen as subsets of 3. All three functions are performative, but not in the sense as Austin’s illocutionary performative. The shibbolethic is about performing a role; the illocutionary is about performing an action.

1 and 2. are relational (about identity defined in relation to the audience). 3. is ontological (about identity that’s immanent, or defined in terms of relationships that are stable or inaccessible to the audience’s influence). 

I wrote above that I couldn’t find anything in the Linguistics literature that precisely describes the shibbolethic function. But there are a few sociolinguistic concepts that point in the general direction, including sociolects, style-switching / style-matching, and indexicality. See For further reading, below.

Even more shibboleths

There’s also the “furtive shibboleth”—one which identifies individuals as part of a group based on their ability to recognize a seemingly-innocuous phrase as a secret message. 


Members of Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes refer to themselves as “a friend of Bill W.”, a reference to AA’s founder, William Griffith Wilson. Outsiders miss the reference and ignore it.

During World War II, gay US sailors would call themselves a “friend of Dorothy,” a reference to their often-stereotyped affinity for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Eventually the Navy figured it out, sort of. But they didn’t understand the reference, and in the 1980s the Naval Intelligence Service launched a wide-ranging investigation in search of an actual Dorothy, who they believed was masterminding a dangerous global conspiracy of homosexual servicemen. As far as I know, they still haven’t found her.

The furtive shibboleth is related to the “dog whistle phrase,” an insidious rhetorical device used for encoding sexist, racist, classist, or other oppressive ideas in language that will only be noticed by members of a particular cultural group. Often the phrase is “armed” with meaning through context and repetition on talk radio programs. Eventually, a phrase as innocuous as “community organizer” (in reference to then-presidential candidate Barrack Obama) can effectively function as a slur, or can stand in for a whole litany of outrage-inducing ideas for the in-group. Meanwhile, people on the outside take no notice. It’s unlikely to backfire in the way an overt slur would. This device has been used to manipulate polling results. 

Aesopian language” is a shibboleth-like device that conceals meaning (often of a subversive nature) in allegories. This term was first used in 19th century Russia to describe allegorical stories used to critique the Russian Empire. Subversives were attuned to the language; the authorities were not. The technique was likewise used by George Orwell, in his novel Animal Farm, to promote democratic socialism. 

Closing thoughts

Linguists have charted piles of language functions, from the referential (proposition and description) to the poetic, the phatic, the emotive, and the almost magical illocutionary action. There are likely functions beyond the ones we’ve discussed, and probably much more obscure ones. PhD. programs churn out brand new linguists and philosophers of language every year; they probably keep busy. 

Our shiny new coinage, the shibbolethic, describes a range of functions that are unique in that they point to the speaker’s identity, often in connection with the audience’s. Which is to say they’re functions of identity as well as relationship, inclusion, exclusion, and power. 

This is mighty stuff. It’s noteworthy that the function’s own power resides in aspects of language unrelated to the words’ literal content. Which is to say, the shibbolethic is a purely connotative function, much like metaphor and metonymy. But unlike these figurative functions, the shibbolethic does not name or directly point to its alternate meaning. So you might think of it as a Trojan horse; a type of communication that can slip in below the threshold of consciousness, before delivering its often formidable payload. 

Wield it wisely! And keep your head about you.





4 if I ever discover this function, you won’t see it here in a blog post. But you’ll be first on the guest list at my new castle.

5 Austin codified and popularized these ideas, but wasn’t the first to take notice. Thomas Reid described “social acts” in the 18th century, and Adolf Reinach and Stanislav Škrabec independently elaborated on socially performative utterances in the early 20th century. Karl Bühler was using the term “speech act” before Austin. 


For further reading:

Austin, J.L. “How to do Things with Words,” the William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Clarendon Press, 2011. [Speech act theory]

Binet, Laurent. The Seventh Function of Language Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. [Satirical novel]

Delin, Judy. “Brand Tone of Voice: A Linguistic Analysis of Brand Positions

Eckert, Penelope; Rickford, John. “Style and sociolinguistic variation.” Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. [Style-switching theory]

Jakobson Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language (ed. Thomas Sebeok), 1960 [Jacobson’s six functions]

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago / London. University of Chicago Press, 1987 [Cognitive Linguistics and metaphor / metonymy]

Niederhoffer, Kate G. Pennebaker, James W. “Linguistic Style Matching in Social Interaction.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Vol.21 No.4, December 2002. 337-360 [Style-matching theory. This is tedious; I just thought you should know it exists.]

Silverstein, Michael. “Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life“. Elsevier Ltd., 2003. [Indexicality theory. Good luck getting through this one.] 

Trudgill, Peter. A Glossary of Sociolinguistics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003 [Sociolect theory]

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation [should be “Zero-Tolerance,” but who am I.]

Wallace, David Foster. “Tense Present” [A rambling treatise on language / culture wars that masquerades as a review of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage]



© Paul Raphaelson. Do not reproduce without permission.

  1. I came across this just recently, but I’ve been coming back to it pretty often. Loving all the Shibbolethicisms!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *