Monday, March 26, 2007


Two not-so recent and well-known examples I've recently encountered in works of fiction, found quite amusing and thought I could share:

1. Dutch - from Paul Verhoeven's Soldaat van Oranje:
Time: May 1940
Setting: Erik and Guus (dressed in tuxedos and arriving on motorcycles) have just reached an army checkpoint in front of a burning barracks hell bent on enlisting and fighting the Germans who had just invaded the Netherlands. The soldiers at the checkpoint are understandibly confused and thus suspicious as to their identity and motives:

SOLDIER 1: Zij zijn Moffen, verklede Moffen!
ERIK: Wij zijn toch Hollanders!
SOLDIER 1: Allemaal op!
SOLDIER 2: "sch" wat zeggen! Moffen kunnen geen "sch" zeggen! Zeggen, Scheveningen!
GUUS: Scheveningen, Scheveningen!
SOLDIER: Scheveningen!
ERIK: Scheveningen!
GUUS: Schele, schoonmoeder, scheveningen!
ERIK: Scheveningen, sch, sch, sch, nul (I think...)!
SOLDIER 3: Ha, ja, laat maar door.

SOLDIER 1: They're Jerries, Jerries in disguise!
ERIK: Come on, we're Dutch!
SOLDIER 1: Stick 'em up!
SOLDIER 2: Let them say something with [sx] in it! Jerries can't pronounce [sx]! [zexxə], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
GUUS: [sxeːvənɪŋə], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
SOLDIER: [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
ERIK: [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
GUUS: [sxeːlə], [sxoːnmudər], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
ERIK: [sxeːvənɪŋə], [sx], [sx], [sx], zero!
SOLDIER 3: Yeah, OK, let 'em through.

It seems that "Scheveningen" was a popular choice for a shibboleth in WWII Netherlands. Tim McNamara in his fascinating article on shibboleths and language tests mentions that according to witnesses, "the Scheveningen shibboleth was 'common knowledge' " at that time and adds this testimony:

The story of the ‘shibboleth test’ to distinguish German speakers from Dutch ones is well known (at least among people of my age). [The expression involved was] Scheveningen, often combined with an even more difficult word for Germans, ‘beschuit’ (Dutch rusk). Germans pronounce ‘sch’ as ‘sj’ and the diphthong ‘ui’ (sounds a bit like in the French fauteuil) as ‘oi’.... Scheveningen is a village at the coast near The Hague. The place was well known during the war because it was the place where people from the resistance were held in prison. ... Moreover a lot of illegal transport by boat from and to England was via Scheveningen. (p. 356)

In the light of this, I'm wondering if the use of the name "Scheveningen" as portrayed in the movie and in fact the whole scene isn't a bit anachronistic. There wasn't that much reason to look for German spies that early in the war and the town hasn't quite achieved its war time prominence yet. Still, it's quite funny, especially thanks to Rutger Hauer's delivery.

The article also includes other examples of shibboleths, like the one from civil war torn Lebanon where (so McNamara's informant), "right wing militia" (Phalangists?) would require people to pronounce the Arabic word for 'tomato' to identify Palestinians. In Lebanese Arabic, it is pronounced [banaduːra], while in Palestinian Arabic, it's [bandoːra] (p. 353).

2. Polish - from Andrzej Sapkowski's Narrenturm:
Time: 1420
Setting: Reynevan, the main protagonist, is trying to hitch a boat ride with what is described as a bunch of Wasserpolaks (nevermind the anachronism, it's a deliberate one and the book is full of them). Note that Reynevan is a Silesian.

- Koń mi okulał. A trzeba mi do Wrocławia.
Polak żachnął się, charknął, splunął znowu.
- No - nie rezygnował Reynevan. - Jakże tedy będzie?
- Nie wożę Niemców.
- Nie jestem Niemcem. Jestem Ślązakiem.
- Aha?
- Aha.
- To powiedz: soczewica, koło, miele, młyn.
- Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn. A ty powiedz: stół z powyłamywanymi nogami.
- Stół z powy... myła... wały... Wsiadaj.

- My horse got lame. And I need to get to Wrocław.
The Polish guy waved his hand, cleared his throat and spit again.
- Well? - Reynevan insisted. - What do you say?
- I don't ferry Germans.
- I'm not German. I'm Silesian.
- Oh?
- Oh.
- Well then say [sot͡ʂeviʦa], [kowo], [miele], [mwɨn].
- [sot͡ʂeviʦa], [kowo], [miele], [mwɨn]. Now your turn: [stuw s povɨwamɨvanɨmi nogami].
- [stuw s povɨ]... [mɨwa]... [vawɨ]... Get on board.

"Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn" is also an old one: it was used in 1312 in Cracow by the armies of Władysław Łokietek to identify Germans most of whom had participated in a rebellion against Łokietek. As for stół s przewył... powyław... poławy... that other one, it is a noted Polish tongue twister. I might pass that test. But if someone ever whips out "Cześć Czesiek! Czeszesz się częściej często, czy częściej czasem" on me, forget it. Just shoot me. Please.

MCNAMARA, Tim: 21st Century Shibboleth: Language Tests, Identity and Intergroup Conflict.
Language Policy, 2005/4, p. 351-370


Anonymous said...

As far as I know shibboleths don't even have to be particularly long. I remember reading that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland Loyalist paramilitaries would ask passers-by to recite the alphabet: if they pronounced H as 'aitch' they were Protestant, and safe; if they said 'haitch', they were taken to be Catholic and beaten up.

Panu said...

What about "w Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie"?

What is this Narrenturm anyway?

John Cowan said...

"Bûter en brea en griene tsiis, hwa't dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjuchte Frys." The English analogue (not a translation) is "Bread, butter, and green cheese is good English and good Friese."

Anonymous said...

"There wasn't that much reason to look for German spies that early in the war"

I can speak to this directly!!

A few days after the Germans invaded -- indeed, when they were halfway to Amsterdam -- my grandfather and father were arrested by the Dutch on the Dutch side for one night on suspicion of being German spies. Relatives and connections vouched for them. I doubt my grandfather spoke very good Dutch if any.

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