Tangling With Tongue Twisters
“The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” throws the brain into a tizzy as it tries to coordinate the muscles that produce speech. When those sounds are made by muscles that are close together the control messages may get jangled en route between brain and mouth. The result is a lot of gibberish.
Other tongue twisters exploit the opposite function. Try saying the name Peggy Babcock a few times. Tricky isn’t it? Language expert Mark Forsyth explains why. “… with ‘Peggy Babcock,’ you make the ‘p’ sound with your lips; the ‘g’ comes from the back of the mouth; the ‘b’ is again from the lips; the ‘k’ is again from the back of the mouth. So we move back and forth, making the sounds in different places in our mouth, and we get in a muddle.”
“Round the rough and rugged rock the ragged rascal rudely ran” is a particularly fun example to toss the way of someone who suffers from rhotacism in which people sound “r” as “w.”
Peter Piper Picks While She Sells Sea Shells
Some tongue twisters spring from the lives of real people.
A French horticulturalist can be blamed for “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Named Pierre by his doting parents M. and Mme. Poivre (French for pepper) in 1719, the young fellow grew to be a bit of a thief. He would steal spice seeds from stores and grow them in his garden. At the time, all spices were known as peppers and it was the practice to coat the seeds with lime in a process called pickling.
Mary Anning lived in the town of Lyme Regis on the south coast of Britain; a place with sea cliffs from the Jurassic period. In the early 19th century, the Anning family business was finding and selling fossils and Mary became skilled at identifying the anatomy of whatever was discovered under the cliffs. She is credited with some major finds that advanced the new science of palaeontology. She also became the inspiration for “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Her story was woven into song by Terry Sullivan in 1908.
“If a dog chews shoes, whose shoes does he choose?”
The Naughty Ones
Tongue twisters that produce rude words are favoured by mischievous schoolboys (and some old journalists who should have outgrown this sort of thing).
“I am not the pheasant plucker,
I’m the pheasant plucker’s mate.
I am only plucking pheasants
Because the pheasant plucker’s late.”
That’s always good for a giggle at a well-lubricated dinner party.
Here’s another one:
“I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit;
And on the slitted sheet I sit.”
Or the gaseous one:
“One smart fellow; he felt smart.
Two smart fellows; they felt smart.
Three smart fellows; they all felt smart.”
There are certain news announcers in broadcasting racket who are known as “Rip and read artists.” They spend most of their time between newscasts in the pub, dash into the newsroom just before airtime, rip copy off the editor’s desk, and head for the studio. It is for these folk that editors sometimes describe tornadoes as a “sucking funnel of wind.”
Johnny Carson's Copper Clappers
What is the Most Difficult Tongue Twister?
It’s impossible to say. “The Leith police dismisseth us” may come trippingly off the tongue of some folk who stumble and splutter through “Red lorry, yellow lorry.”
In 1979, Games Magazine held a contest in which readers were asked to devise the toughest tongue twister. The winner was “Shep Schwab shopped at Scott’s Schnapps shop; One shot of Scott’s Schnapps stopped Schwab’s watch.” No mention was made about whether or not Schwab’s watch was a Swatch.
“Three grey geese in green fields grazing.”
“We surely shall see the sun shine soon.”
In 2010, the American author William Poundstone wrote in his book The Ultimate that the hardest tongue twister is “The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.” This may have to be disqualified from the competition because it contains two words that Spellcheck says are not real words.
In 2013, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said they had created the ultimate tongue twister: “Pad kid poured curd pulled cod.” That should quieten down those people who wonder why there are universities. Purists might argue that it's just a series of words that do not make up a sentence and therefore is not a real tongue twister.
Serious Side of Tongue Twisters
It isn’t all frivolity and personal embarrassment as your slur you way through “She saw Sheriff’s shoes on the sofa. But was she so sure she saw Sheriff’s shoes on the sofa?”
Neuroscientists are using tongue twisters to help study brain function and connectivity.
Speaking is probably one of the most complex activities humans engage in (not counting using the TV controller). It requires the split-second coordination of lips, tongue, larynx, and jaw.
“He threw three free throws.”
Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel is an MIT psychologist who studies speech errors in order to get a better understanding of normal brain functions. She is quoted by Psychology Today (December 2013) as saying “When things go wrong, that can tell you something about how the typical, error-free operation should go.”
The hope is that the research will lead to therapies for speech impediments such as stuttering.
There is a website that lists 593 English language tongue twisters. It is, of course, maintained by German-speakers in Austria. The site also has an international collection of 3,660 tongue twisters in 118 languages from Acholi (“Lagwok gwokke; Ogwok gwoke lagwok”) to Zulu (“Ingqeqebulane yaqaqela uqhoqhoqho, uqhoqhoqho waqaqela iqaqa, iqaqa laqalaza”).
What are known as “finger fumblers” can trip up people using American Sign Language; “good blood, bad blood” is an example.
Many public speakers, actors, and radio and television announcers limber up with tongue twisters to improve their diction.
- “The Secret to a Great Tongue Twister.” Harry Mount, News.com.au, December 19, 2013.
- “The Beginnings of Famous Tongue Twisters.” Wells-Smith Partners, 2012.
- “MIT Researchers Say they Have Created the Trickiest Tongue Twister to Date.” Steve Annear, Boston Daily, December 5, 2013.
- “Tongue Twisters Reveal Quirky Brain Functions.” Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today, December 5, 2013.
- “English Tongue Twisters” - http://www.uebersetzung.at/twister/en.htm
- “Tongue Twisters.” Smartwords.org, undated.