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The chilling return of shibboleths
Pronouncing a word in the wrong way can be fatal
Let’s start today’s column with a passage from the Bible. Not one of those nice hopeful messages of love and forgiveness Jesus talked about in the Gospels, but rather a tale of blood-strewn ethnic violence from the Old Testament, the kind of thing that Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction might say before shooting someone.
It comes from The Book of Judges:
Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.
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.
As with most wars throughout human history, the conflict between the Gileadites and Ephraimites was fought between two peoples who looked indistinguishable and could only be identified by their language — and so shibboleth came to mean a tribal marker, and one with a deadly history.
That history is still being written in 2022. Although I’m not going to share it, some of you may have seen a disturbing video currently going around social media showing a suspected Russian saboteur being interrogated by Ukrainian forces. The man is being asked to say the Ukrainian word palyanytsya, a type of bread, which Russians find hard to pronounce.
The significance of palyanytsya was mentioned last month in this Politico article reporting how Ukrainians were using the term as a way of telling friend from foe. It was being used as a password, a tribal identifier; that is, a shibboleth.
Shibboleths have been a feature of ethnic conflict throughout history, often involving the names of food, and it’s quite a bleak story. In England it featured in the rural uprising in 1381 that at the time was called the Mad Multitude but later became known as the Peasant’s Revolt.
It is a somewhat embarrassing passage of English radical history, uncomfortably put in with that succession of failed ‘progressive patriots’ like the Levellers and Chartists. The tens of thousands of rural men who poured in from Kent and Essex may have had some coherent gripes to begin with, chiefly the poll tax and the imposition of maximum wage laws after the Black Death had raised the price of labour.
But having crossed London Bridge, things deteriorated quickly, and as with much of English history, booze was involved. The drunken mob burned down the Savoy Palace; they found the Archbishop of Canterbury and beheaded him, along with various other nobles; they set fire to buildings which they thought held records of debts; they attacked officials and tax collectors.
They also targeted any foreigners they saw, and in one go 35 Flemish migrants were murdered, having been identified by being made to say ‘bread and cheese’. A chronicler records that ‘And many fflemmynges loste hir heedes at that tyme and namely they that koude nat say Breede and Chese, but Case and Brode.’
A similarly well-known shibboleth occurred in 1282 during the uprising against French rule in Sicily, the ‘Sicilian Vespers’, so-called because it began at the time of evening prayer. A generation earlier the island had been acquired by Charles of Anjou, a younger son of the King of France and one of these medieval rulers with a collection of strange titles, including King of Jerusalem (a meaningless claim by now, the crusades being almost lost) and King of Albania. The French planned to use Sicily as a springboard for further conquest in the Near East and their rule was very unpopular. Once again food was involved in the shibboleth, the Sicilians making suspects say the word ciciri, chickpeas, which French people cannot pronounce. It’s chee-chiry)
Twenty years later came the ‘Matins of Bruges’ (named in homage to the previous event). Here the Flemish massacred the city’s foreign occupiers, demanding that everyone says schild en vriend, ‘shield and friend’, which the poor old French, once again, struggled with. The Matins helped trigger the subsequent French invasion of Flanders and the Battle of the Golden Spurs, a cataclysmic defeat seen as the end of chivalry.
Shibboleths might even be used to distinguish different types of foreigners, as with the Battle of Chioggia in 1380, in which Venice and Genoa fought a huge sea battle for control of the Mediterranean for about the 3,000th time. Afterwards the captured Paduans, Hungarians and others were separated from the Genoese by asking the prisoners to pronounce capra, goat, which the Genoese could only enunciate as crapa. Some 4,000 were marched off to prison camps where many died in horrendous conditions; the others, who were only mercenaries, were allowed to go.
(The Venetian fleet was captained by Carlo Zeno, nicknamed the Unconquered and one of the most epic figures of all time; orphaned as a child after his father was killed in battle, Zeno had become ‘a scholar, a musician, a priest, a gambler, a soldier of fortune’ and on one occasion had been left for dead in Padua by robbers, and on another almost buried alive after a siege against the Turks, wrapped in a shroud and put in a coffin — the nails were going in when he showed signs of life. In another escapade, Zeno climbed up the side of a prison in Constantinople by rope to release the captured emperor.)
Shibboleths have also featured in modern conflict. In the 1937 ‘Parsley massacre’ some 20,000 Haitians were murdered in the Dominican Republic, and Dominican guards would ask anyone with dark skin to say parsley, perejil in Spanish but hard for the French and Creole-speaking Haitians to mimic (it’s persil in French, pronounced per-see). During the Second World War, Dutch soldiers would use the name of Scheveningen, a seaside resort near the Hague, to catch out Germans, the latter pronouncing it as ‘sh’ and finding it hard to get to grip with the Dutch language’s wild tongue-distorting pronunciations.
Shibboleths might even be used to distinguish speakers of the same language. Perhaps the most notorious case occurred in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, a conflict partly triggered by the influx of Palestinians into the demographically precarious state to the north. Christian militiamen were known to present tomatoes to suspected Palestinians and ask what they were — banadoura in Lebanese Arabic but bandoura to Palestinians. English speakers joke about the tomahto of British English and tomayto of American English but in this case it was deadly serious — those who got the pronunciations wrong were shot.
Similarly in 2002, in the disputed area of Belfast around the Short Strand, masked men demanded that students repeat the alphabet, since Protestants and Catholics pronounce ‘H’ in a different way (aitch v haitch). On that occasion no one died but twenty years earlier it would almost certainly have resulted in something horrific.
As someone who is terrible at accents, and very bad at detecting them, I’m always impressed by people who can do them well. An interesting question is whether unnamed individuals survived any of these massacres because of their ability to mimic foreign accents.
Many people’s instinctive reaction to Ukraine is to compare it to the Second World War, the modern world’s origin story and the conflict we’re most familiar with. But contained within this horror are stories found in wars throughout history, and that includes the use of shibboleths to distinguish friend from foe, one of the oldest stories in history. As another part of the Good Book tells us, ‘there is no new thing under the sun’.