I know a number of speakers for whom English is a second language who are unable to pronounce sh. As a result, words such as passion become something along the lines of pass-en. I'd like to know what this inability to pronounce this sound is called?

Any other pertinent information will also be appreciated.

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    There is no special term; it's simply interference from one's native language. To make an [ʃ] sound, as in passion ['pæʃən], say an [s] and, while saying it, slide the tongue back along the roof of the mouth. Eventually you will reach the place where [ʃ] is articulated. That is all. – John Lawler Jul 30 '15 at 21:31
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it has nothing to do with E L & U. – Drew Jul 31 '15 at 2:01

The word you want is shibboleth. From Wikipedia:

The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain[3] or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent".[4][5] The modern use derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites, whose dialect did include such a phoneme.

Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BCE), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites told each refugee to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect did not contain the "sh" sound and so those who pronounced the word as sibboleth were identified as Ephraimites and killed. [6][7]

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  • That's a little harsh for today's learners! – chasly from UK Jul 30 '15 at 21:53
  • During World War II, one of the ways they distinguished between Americans and spies posing as Americans is to engage in a discussion of current baseball stars. Naturally, the Germans couldn't hold up their end of the conversation, and were found out. – Steven Littman Jul 30 '15 at 21:56
  • I would be in serious trouble if this practice were to start up again today... – IchabodE Jul 30 '15 at 22:47
  • I don't think "Shibboleth" actually answers the question. This answer may give the (connected to the question) derivation, but "shibboleth" means something more general: an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue: a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group. Merriam webster – Margana Jul 31 '15 at 0:27
  • @Margana--although it also has your meaning, the Wikipedia article says: A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/[2]) is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants. – Steven Littman Jul 31 '15 at 1:02

In general, any speech impediment can be called a lisp. These days the term is usually restricted to an inability to produce a sibilant.



  1. to speak or pronounce imperfectly or haltingly


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