During World War II, U.S. draft-dodgers escaped to Canada and Canadian draft-dodgers escaped to the U.S. Authorities hired to track them down had trouble telling Canadians from Americans. But there was one small difference. In America, children are taught the alphabet with the final letter Z pronounced ‘zee’; but Canadians learn it as ‘zed’. When suspected draft dodgers were asked to recite the alphabet, the last letter would clearly tell their nationality. The same technique was used to identify draft dodgers during the Viet Nam war.
In the 1200s the French occupied the island of Sicily. Their controversial governing methods caused the Sicilians to revolt many years later, and the French were massacred. However, many of the French had learned the local Italian language well enough that it was hard to tell them from the natives just from their accents. The Sicilians asked all questionable people to pronounce “cicero ceci” which means “chickpeas from cicero.” In Italian, the phrase is prounounced with four “ch” sounds in rapid succession. However, in the French language, the “ch” sound had been replaced by the “sh” sound. If it was said as “cheechero chechee” the person walked away, but those that said “sheeshero sheshee” were imprisoned.
When U.S. General MacArthur was in the Philippines during World War II, Japanese spies would pose as Chinese or Filipino citizens in order to penetrate the defenses. Suspected spies would be asked to pronounce the word “hula-hula.” Chinese and Filipinos have no trouble pronouncing the “l” but Japanese do not have the “l” sound in their language and would therefore pronounce it “hura-hura.” thereby betraying their nationality.
In the Bible in the Book of Judges, the Gileadites are at war with the Ephraimites. The Ephraimites looked the same and spoke the same language, so when the Gileadites had them trapped, it was hard to tell friend from foe. A Gileadite leader had every person pronounce the word for an ear of corn, which was pronounced “shibboleth” by the Gileadites, but “sibboleth” by the Ephraimites. Those who pronounced the word wrong were put to death.
In the 1800s the Turks and Egyptians were at war. The Egyptians invaded the Turk’s province of Syria, where many Egyptians were captured. The Turks did not want to kill any of their Syrian fellowmen, even if they were wearing the Egyptian uniform. Of course, all of the prisoners claimed to be a Syrian. Both Syrians and Egyptians speak Arabic. This time the password was “gamal” meaning camel. The Syrians say “jamal” and the Egyptians say “gamal.” Only those who pronounced it correctly lived.
In 1851, during Napoleon III’s coup d’etat, an aide reported to Count de St. Arnaud that a mob had gathered outside. The Count, who had been troubled with a cold, replied, “Ma sacrée toux!” meaning, “my damned cough!” The aide thought he said, “Massacrez tous” which means “massacre all.” The phrases sound identical in French. The order to fire was given and hundreds lost their lives.
In World War II, when Truman, Churchill and Stalin called for the Japanese to surrender, they responded with the word “mokusatsu” which meant they were reserving comment: “We’re thinking it over.” However, an inaccurate translator thought that “mokusatsu” meant they were ignoring it. On July 28, the Allies decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima as a result.