alt alt alt alt alt

How the Ukrainian Word паляниця Helps Distinguish Between Ukrainians and Russians

Read Time: 4 mins
How the Ukrainian Word паляниця Helps Distinguish Between Ukrainians and Russians
alt alt

How are traditional Ukrainian wheat bread and Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups connected? To identify spies and saboteurs, Ukrainians use an effective age-old method – they ask individuals to pronounce the Ukrainian word паляниця (palyanytsia) which is a type of hearth-baked wheat bread.

Cultural appropriation is a phenomenon that Ukraine has constantly encountered throughout its history. This occurred with the work of the Crimean artist Ivan Aivazovsky, Scythian gold and attempts to appropriate borscht.

But Ukrainian palyanytsia is something that Russia will not be able to appropriate, regardless of the circumstances. All because Russians cannot properly pronounce this word.

From the first day of the Russian invasion, it was clear that the whole war would not be fought openly on a battlefield. A significant component of Russian forces would consist of sabotage and reconnaissance groups that would carry out their tasks under cover.

Two days after the start of the full-scale war, an extended curfew was imposed in Kyiv. For 39 consecutive hours, city residents were barred from leaving their homes (except for shelters) so that Ukrainian forces could more effectively detect Russian saboteurs.

With each passing day, despite their fatigue, Ukrainians begin to treat strangers with increasing suspicion. It is almost impossible to distinguish a Ukrainian from a Russian military man in civilian clothes. Language adds another difficulty, as many Ukrainians speak Russian, and many Russian soldiers have a certain degree of success with simple Ukrainian phrases.

Some were tested in their cultural knowledge. They were asked who the Minister of Emergency Situations in Ukraine is. A Ukrainian would no doubt reply that such a position does not exist, while a Russian would make obvious efforts to remember.

Nevertheless, a trained Russian spy can handle any question, so a more powerful method was needed, such as a shibboleth, which – is a password of sorts used to identify members of a community. This type of test is effective because the accent needed is very difficult to acquire in a short period.

Due to the similarities between the Ukrainian and Russian languages, one could assume that there should be no pronunciation difficulties. After all, almost all the letters are the same.

However, in practice, this is not the case. A Russian speaker is not accustomed to pronouncing a number of Ukrainian words. So, this becomes an ideal means to identify a person’s origins.

For example, the words паляниця (palyanytsia – bread), полуниця (polunytsia – strawberry), криниця (krynytsia – well) and рушниця (rushnytsia – shotgun) are especially difficult for Russians to pronounce. They replace a soft “i” sound with a “и” and a “z” sound with “ts” in these words. In the case of the first two words (palyanytsia and polunytsia), the meaning is even disputed. The well-known Russian presenter, Olga Skabeeva, tried to explain how Ukrainians identify saboteurs with the word palyanytsia. However, she mispronounced it and misinterpreted the meaning as strawberry. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Olga would definitely not pass the test!

Today, the word palyanytsia is no longer just about bread or a test for Russian military personnel. It is now both a national meme and a symbol of Ukrainian unity in its resistance.

At first, the word test was carried out by ordinary Ukrainians at checkpoints across the country, trying not to permit Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups entry into Ukrainian cities. Many were often not even standing at checkpoints when approaching a group of Russian soldiers to ask them to say palyanytsia. Ukrainians feel free in their cities, despite the real threat to their lives.

Now this word is used at high levels. On March 17, Ukrainian Prime Minister Dmytro Shmygal also showed his support for the Palyanitsa inspection in responding to a tweet from British Defense Minister Ben Wallace.

Wallace recounted he had received a phone call from an individual posing as the Prime Minister of Ukraine who tried to ask some misleading questions. Shmygal, already more experienced in detecting impostors, advised Wallace to ask his interlocutor to say the word palyanytsia next time.

With each passing day, palyanytsia becomes a more significant symbol of unity in resistance. It has even been adopted as the name of a volunteer project for the supply of medicines from abroad for Ukrainian patients. It is run by volunteers from Israel and has gained global support.

Palyanytsia is also a new free restaurant for Kyiv pensioners. Several restaurants and manufacturers have teamed up to provide support to those in need. As of March 19, the restaurant will provide retirees with the opportunity to have free lunch or take food with others every day.

Palyanytsia has now become the buzz word for how unity and mutual aid combat hatred.

  1. This term is of Biblical origin. The Old Testament tells how a judge of Israel , Jephthah, fought and defeated the Jews of the tribe of Ephraim. To prevent the Ephraimites from fleeing to the land, the people of Gilead asked them to say “shibboleth” (and they spoke), which is now a scientific term. 

alt alt alt