Tangling With Tongue Twisters

Updated on September 7, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

“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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Bonus Factoids

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”).

Suppose you want to say “My sisters’ toenails looked like my grandfathers” in Indonesia. You never know you might want to. Anyway, you will have to enunciate “Kuku kaki kakak kakak ku kayak kuku kaki kakek kakek ku."

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.

Sources

  • “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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Rupert Taylor

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Luke Holm profile image

        JourneyHolm 

        21 months ago

        I love tongue twisters! I'm currently writing a narrative rap that is made up almost entirely tongue twisters. I learned a few new ones from your hub. Thanks a bunch! Keep up the good work.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        21 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Tongue twisters have always been fun. There's a few I've not heard of, but have tried most of them, including the rude ones. They're not easy!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)