Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shibboleths and Linguistic Persecution, Part 2

In yesterday's post, we learned about shibboleths and their linguistic history. Today we have several more historical moments to share that use specific words as linguistic tests designed to ferret out the enemy.

This ferret is saddened by the use of language as a tool of war.

War of the Spanish Succession

This war in the early 1700s started because of a king who would never produce an heir, which might have led to the unification of the Spanish and French kingdoms. Apparently, much of Europe didn't like that idea. In any case, Spain was divided on the issue, so the very odd phrase setze jutges d'un jutjat mengen fetge d'un penjat ("sixteen judges from a court eat the liver of a hanged man") was used to distinguish Spaniards from Catalans. Spaniards were unable to pronounce the voiced affricate consonant [d͡ʒ] which makes the 'j' sound as in '"judge". Nowadays, this cannibalistic sentence is merely used as a fun tongue-twister.

Is this judge thinking about eating human liver
for dinner? We certainly hope not!

Finnish Civil War

The Finnish word for "one" was used by the White Guard to distinguish Russians from Finns. People suspected of being Russian fighters were asked to say yksi. Anyone who pronounced the word [juksi] was immediately shot... including members of the White Guard who didn't use the required pronunciation. Oops.

Sumgait Pogrom

In February of 1988, Azeri mobs formed across the town of Sumgait, Azerbaijan. The mobs targeted ethnic Armenians, and sometimes identified them using the shibboleth fundukh, the Azeri word for "hazelnut". If they pronounced the initial 'f' as [p], they were assumed to be Armenians and either attacked or killed.

Can you imagine being killed over your pronunciation
of the word "hazelnut"? We can't. 

Bruges Matins / Brugse Metten

On the night of May 18, 1302, the Flemish militia in Bruges, Belgium massacred their French occupiers. The militia went to houses where they knew French troops were living, woke up every man, and forced them to repeat schild en vriend, meaning "shield and friend". The Dutch phrase was difficult for the French to pronounce, and every Frenchman who failed was immediately stabbed. About 2,000 men were killed in their nightgowns that night.

Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers was a rebellion that started on Easter of 1282 in Sicily. The Sicilians weren't fond of the French king, and used the shibboleth ciciri meaning "chickpeas". The Italian 'c' pronounced [t͡ʃ] and 'r' were difficult for the French to pronounce. The Sicilians were victorious and over 3,000 French people were killed within six weeks.

I vespri siciliani, scena 3 by Italian painter Francesco Hayez.

World War II: 5 Shibboleths Used To Identify German Soldiers

1. The Dutch had the Germans pronounce the word scheveningen. The sequence 'sch' in Dutch requires the use of [s] and then [x], while in German, it is pronounced as [ʃ], as in "shh!". The Dutch used this shibboleth to identify Nazi spies in their country. 

2. Allied patrols in the Netherlands also used Nijmegen, the name of the oldest city in the country, to distinguish between German soldiers and Dutch natives. Most Germans had problems pronouncing the 'ij', while others would merely use the German name for the city, Nimwegen.

3. British forces may have used the word squirrel as a password in hopes that any German infiltrators would slip up and pronounce it "sqvirrel". 

"Squirrel" in German is Hörnchen.

4. English-speaking Allied forces often used words containing the letter 'w' as passwords and countersigns. On D-Day, when two men dressed as Allied soldiers met, the first would utter the challenge word "flash", to which an ally would respond "thunder". The second person would then challenge the first by waiting for the countersign welcome, which was came out more like "velcome" when pronounced by a German.

5. Germans pretending to be American soldiers also tended to give themselves away by using British English vocabulary such as lorry instead of "truck" or petrol instead of "gasoline". They probably learned quickly that all English is not the same...