There are, of course Russian spies all over Ukraine. We would expect no less. They scout and they report back to their superiors. And sometimes, they are caught. Sometimes, their cover – as they say in B-movies - is blown.
Ukrainians have figured out how to ferret out many of the Russia spies wandering around their country. And their trick, the litmus test to discover who is a real Ukrainian and who is a fake, is as far from high tech an anything can be. They use the ancient biblical tool called the shibboleth.
While the languages spoken in Russia and Ukraine are similar, there are significant differences. Note, for example, the phonetic spelling of the first names of the respective leaders of both countries. They carry the same name, yet they spell their names and pronounce their names with nuanced differences. In transliteration, it’s Vladimir for Putin and Volodymyr for Zelensky.
Sounds are automatic give aways because of the different emphasis given to certain vowel and consonant collections in Ukrainian versus Russian. And so, Ukrainians use a shibboleth involving the name of a popular, once seasonal and now common bakery item. It is the name of a bread called palianytsia.
Russians cannot properly pronounce the name of the bread. Try as they might, palianytsia does not come tripping off their tongues. Even if they can say it once, they trip up when saying it three times in a row. And they’ve been outed, caught and uncovered. The fluffy loaf of bread catches spies in Ukraine like lie detector.
A shibboleth is like a password.
During World War II, US soldiers would use a shibboleth of their own. They would test suspects on the all-American sport of baseball. Baseball was the game every red-blooded American was supposed to know about. If someone couldn’t explain a suicide bunt or a knuckler, it raised serious warning flags. A spy might have a perfect American accent, but without a keen knowledge of insider baseball, they could not pass the all-American test.
So, what was the first shibboleth, where did it all start? Well, actually, it started with an actual shibboleth.
In the biblical book of Judges, in Chapter 12, Ephraimites cross the Jordan River and attack Gilead, which is located at the nexus of the Yabok River and the Jordan River. Gilead repels the invasion under the leadership of Yiftah. The Ephraimites were uncovered as spies because Ephraimites could not easily pronounce the shin in the word shibboleth.
Instead of the shin sound, they pronounced it sibbolet using the sin sound. In Judges 12:5-6, soldiers of Gilead intercepted Ephraimites crossing back over the Jordan River and asked them to say shibboleth. If they couldn’t, they were killed. All in all 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.
The Bible tells the story: “And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites and so, when those Ephraimites which were escaping said “Let me go over.” The men of Gilead should ask “Art thou an Ephraimite?” If he says no.
Then tell him, “Say shibboleth” and he says sibboleth. He could not pronounce it correctly. Then they took him and killed him at the Jordan crossings and 42,000 Ephraimites were killed there.”
The word they were asked to pronounce, the word which now defines who is a native and who is not, who is a spy and who is not, is a simple Hebrew word meaning the top of a stalk of grain. Wheat, rye or even corn, in Hebrew, the part of the stalk that is harvested is the shibboleth.
Many languages have these have these tells when speaking another language. One needs to work very hard to overcome them in a different language.
Native Arab speakers, for example, naturally say bolice when referring to the police. They need to practice and work hard to say the hard P. And that difficulty is the reason the beautiful oasis in northern Israel is called Banias. The site was dedicated to the Greek god of wild nature, spontaneity, Pan who was often depicted with his flute. The site should be called Panias, but locals could not pronounce it, so it is Banias.
Some accents and speakers of particular languages have difficulty transitioning into Hebrew, also. In Hebrew, almost every word is pronounced milra – the emphasis is on the last syllable. When the emphasis is not at the end of the word, when there are exceptions to the rule, that word that is milel. Many native Spanish speakers have difficulty with milel. It’s their automatic tell.
Regional accents act as clues to a person’s origins. Any American can immediately tell if someone’s family has lived in the city of Baltimore for generations or if they’re a newer arrival. A true native of the city never calls it Baltimore, the “ti” is dropped and they say Balmore.
The world around us is ever-changing, warfare included. It’s nice to know that some things remain constants and that the Bible still plays an ever-important role, even in modern warfare.
The writer is a columnist and a social and political commentator.