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Tongue Twisters: why reciting Peter Piper could prove useful


Fascinating and often challenging verbal workouts, tongue twisters are features of many languages.

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters certainly raise smiles when the unfortunate souls reciting them run into trouble. They can also be written to include witticisms or to inevitably result in vulgarity.

These verbal gymnastics are usually entertaining but can be extremely useful too. It’s worth familiarising yourself with a few tongue twisters as they just might come in handy.

What is a tongue twister?

A tongue twister is a phrase or verse that is deliberately designed to be difficult to articulate. Speakers need to concentrate if they are to express these phrases correctly and the faster the speaker attempts to recite a tongue twister, the more likely they are to stumble over the words.


Tongue twisters explained

Tongue twisters rely on various linguistic features to produce phrases that mess with minds as well as tongues:

  1. Many tongue twisters work their magic by featuring rapid alternations between similar but distinct phonemes. Phonemes are distinct units of sound in a specified language.

Example:

She sells seashells by the seashore.

  1. Some tongue twisters rely on a combination of alliteration and rhyme, and feature sequences of sounds that require the speaker to reposition their tongue between syllables. The same sounds are often repeated in different sequences.

Example:

Tongue twisters Betty Botter

Betty Botter bought a bit of butter.


The butter Betty Botter bought was a bit bitter

And made her batter bitter.

But a bit of better butter makes better batter.

So Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter

Making Betty Botter’s bitter batter better

  1. Tongue twisters sometimes utilise compound words and their stems to cause verbal and mental confusion.

Example:



Tongue twisters Woodchuck

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck

if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck

if a woodchuck would chuck wood.

  1. You will also encounter tongue twisters that are easy to articulate when speaking slowly but which become almost impossible to render correctly if repeated rapidly.

Example:

Fred fed Ted bread and Ted fed Fred bread.

  1. Certain tongue twisters are humorous because they are calculated to produce rude or vulgar expressions when they are delivered incorrectly.

Example:


Tongue twisters Old Mother Hunt

Old Mother Hunt had a rough cut punt

Not a punt cut rough,

But a rough cut punt.

Try repeating this one quickly without using a certain rude English word beginning with “c”!

  1. It isn’t only spoken words that can be hard to articulate. Certain phrases can be awkward to render in sign language and such phrases are called finger-fumblers! Few of these exist but the phrase “good blood, bad blood” is notoriously difficult to tackle.

When were tongue twisters first used?

English tongue twisters date back to at least the 18th century. The earliest examples of tongue twisters that have been identified originated in medieval Europe and were used as mnemonic devices to help with memorising lists.

What are the benefits of tongue twisters?

Tongue twister benefits

Clearly, tongue twisters can be the source of much mirth and they definitely appeal to children. They can produce great party games and will keep youngsters entertained for hours.

On a more serious note, these verbal exercises are features of most languages and reciting them can help non-native speakers to improve their pronunciation, intonation and fluency. Tricky tongue twisters also stretch and strengthen the muscles which are used for speech and will reveal which words a speaker may have issues expressing.

Do tongue twisters help with pronunciation skills?

As most tongue twisters feature alliteration (the repetition of a sound), they are extremely useful for refining accents and speech fluency.

Tongue twisters speech fluency

They are also highly effective tools for those learning a foreign language that has phonemes that do not exist in the native language of the students.

For instance, Japanese does not feature the “i”, “v”, “th” or “schwa” sounds found in English. “The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday would be an excellent tongue twister for Japanese students of English to master.

Actors, politicians and public speakers often recite tongue twisters to improve their diction and to inspire self-confidence.

Memorising tongue twisters can help improve memory and cognitive abilities. Like puzzles and learning a new language, they are potentially helpful in delaying the onset of dementia.

Which is the hardest English tongue twister to recite?

There are several candidates here! The Guinness Book of World Records states that the toughest tongue twister (note the alliteration!) is “‘The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick‘.” Whatever that is supposed to mean! It might be nonsensical, but reciting this phrase is a great way to improve your “th” and “sh” sounds.

Tongue twisters The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick‘.

According to the researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the phrase “Pad kid poured curd pulled cod.” Is especially difficult to say.

Another contender for the hardest tongue twister is a creation that won a 1979 competition run by Games Magazine – “Shep Schwab shopped at Scott’s Schnapps shop; One shot of Scott’s Schnapps stopped Schwab’s watch”. Not only is this twister almost impossible to articulate correctly, it is also a sentence that makes sense, sort of!

Which tongue twister do you think is the hardest to say?

Lost in translation

Of course, tongue twisters cannot be effectively translated into another language as they rely on the sounds of words rather than their meanings. Many are almost meaningless anyway. However, they are certainly excellent exercises for anyone to practice, whether they are learning a new language or perfecting their command of their native language.


Japanese Tongue Twister

An example of a French tongue twister is “Si ces six saucissons-ci sont si secs, ces six saucissons-ci sont donc des saucissons secs.”  This phrase translates to “If these six sausages are so dry, then these six sausages are dried sausages.” and is a great tongue twister for improving one’s French.

Finally, it would be fitting to include a Japanese tongue twister: 生麦生米生卵隣の客はよく柿食う客だ

Namanugi Namagome Namatamago Tonarino kyakuha yoku kaki kuu kyaku da

This phrase translates to “Raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg.”

We should all appreciate tongue twisters and a good day to do that would be International Tongue Twister Day which will next be celebrated 8 November 2024.

#languagefocus #pronunciation

James Myatt

4 min read

Dec 8, 2023

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