Tongue twisters

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Yet another Rhymes With Orange cartoon, mostly silliness, about tongue twisters:

There's tons of stuff on tongue twisters, most of it what I think of as "tongue twister appreciation": collections  of them, sometimes in a number of languages, for the reader's enjoyment.

There's also a certain amount of technical literature about them, in particular some linguistic studies about the patterns that make people prone to the errors (of the substitution/transposition type) in certain expressions. The /s/-/ʃ/ alternations in "She sells seashells …" are somewhat troublesome, but far from the worst there is (as in things like "rubber baby buggy bumpers", which makes grave problems for almost all "normal" speakers, especially when these speakers are asked to repeat the expression).

As far as I know, speech therapists don't use tongue twisters as a teaching tool (though I could be wrong).

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51 Comments »

  1. Sili said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    What's the issue with "rubber baby buggy bumpers"?

    I can't reliably say "She sells seashells by the seashore. The seashells that she sells are seashells, I'm sure", though. Nor "red lorry, yellow lorry, …"

  2. Ransom said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    The most concise piece to consistently give me any trouble is "toy boat"– repeat several times quickly for best effect, of course.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    What's the issue with "rubber baby buggy bumpers"?

    Same as with:

    I'm not the pheasant plucker,
    I'm the pheasant plucker's son,
    And I'm only plucking pheasants
    Till the pheasant plucker comes.

  4. Dave M said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    I don't have any problem with "rubber baby buggy bumpers" (it helps to think about what it means, and put the stress on "baby"), but I do have to be careful with "the sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick."

  5. tayloj said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

    Others have said it too, but I find sellers of seashells rather difficult (I can rarely get through it once), but "rubber baby buggy bumpers" isn't bad (though typing it feels kind of strange).

  6. Walter Underwood said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    One of our son's speech therapists was pretty happy about the Pokemon phenomenon, because some of the names were tricky and the kids were motivated to say them.

  7. Nathan Myers said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    Every single thing I was about to say has already been posted by Ransom and Dave M, except to appreciate Fox in Socks.

  8. Ael said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    In 6th grade, I had weekly speech therapy at school for my lisp, and the 'Sally sells sea shells by the seashore' tongue twister actually was something I had to say in therapy over and over and over again.

    This was 25 years ago, and I have no idea if it was common practice then or now. (I still have a slight lisp, and can't get through the tongue twister without it showing very obviously.)

  9. kip said,

    July 16, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    I took a public speaking class in high school where we recited tongue twisters, supposedly to help us enunciate better. Not quite the same as speech therapy, though.

  10. Melissa said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 12:05 am

    I've worked as a speech therapy assistant (within the past couple years), and we occasionally used tongue twisters as practice for kids who had a sound just about mastered, really more for fun than as a serious therapy tool though.

  11. dw said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 1:14 am

    "rubber baby buggy bumpers" is definitely harder in a rhotic accent than a non-rhotic accent: but I still don't find it very difficult.

    A short one that is very difficult for me is:

    "Peggy Babcock".

  12. Courtney said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 1:15 am

    When I was a child, I had speech therapy for speaking with a lisp. We played candyland, talked, and recited tongue twisters. I was young, but I distinctly remember that being a part of the therapy.

  13. Alex said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 2:39 am

    Didn't Henry Higgins use them to train Eliza Doolittle?

  14. peter said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 2:43 am

    Try at speed:

    "She was a chick with the cheek to be chic with a sheik."

  15. Cecily said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    Is there a word for something that's not necessarily a tongue twister, but is a typing twister?

    When I tried typing Peter's suggestion I was totally accurate till the final word, which I somehow rendered as excrement, even though it's not a word I normally type. Maybe there's a jump-off from tongue twisters to pseudo-Freudian interpretation?

  16. Rachael said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    I've sung in choirs where they use tongue-twisters as warm-ups, e.g. repeating it once on each note of a scale. One which is surprisingly difficult given its short length is "unique New York". I can't repeat that eight times without it turning into "you neek you nork".

  17. Michael J. Barnes said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    As a speech/accent coach for performers, I rarely use tongue twisters. I've found that they simply emphasize a couple of phonemes and are more of a quick enjoyable challenge than anything that truly improves speech dexterity.

    In response to a couple of posts, Henry Higgins–both in Pygmalion and in My Fair Lady–used key sound sentences to work with Eliza. They were not mean to twist the tongue but simply to emphasize a problem sound. "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plane, (which is in the musical, not the play) was used to emphasize a Cockney's tendency to pronounce the "AY" sound as something closer resembling "EYE."

    At one point, Guinness Book had listed "The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick," as the hardest tongue twister.

    Interesting discussion everyone.

  18. Richard Bell said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    Are you copper-bottoming 'em, my man?
    No, I'm aluminuming 'em, mum.

  19. Randy Alexander said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    I teach pronunciation, and sometimes come up with tongue twisters in class. Here's one I came up with a couple years ago:

    Think something. Sink, thumb, sing.

    My favorite tongue twister that I know of is "we're real rear wheels". I haven't been able to track down who wrote it though. Does anybody know?

  20. Tim Silverman said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    I find that the name "United Detector Technology" (an actual company) tends to reduce me to hopeless stuttering with great rapidity.

  21. Jim Roberts said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    "As far as I know, speech therapists don't use tongue twisters as a teaching tool (though I could be wrong)."

    I went through speech therapy when I was younger (my "r"s came out as "w"s) and while we didn't use the very complicated tongue twisters, the ones designed to turn your tongue into a corkscrew, we did use a lot of sentences that used the same consonant in different combinations which, for those with a speech impediment, had the net effect of being tongue twisters.

    "He beats his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts," is a tongue twister for everyone, though.

  22. acilius said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    @Tim Silverman: Thank you for "United Detector Technology"! It's the only one so far I can say without stumbling.

  23. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    I use Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software and like to check it and adjust my audio settings with the shibboleth:

    "Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, with barest wrists and stoutest boasts, she thrusts her fists against the posts and still insists she sees the ghosts."

    Dunno where it came from; we used to use it as a test in early text-to-speech programming (~1975).

  24. MattF said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    So, where do I get the rubber babies for my buggy bumpers?

  25. Tom Vinson said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, in an attempt to prove he isn't drunk:
    "She stood at the door of Burgess's fish sauce shop, welcoming him in."

  26. Charles said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    One thing this discussion has made very clear is that different people find different things difficult to say. I have no difficulty saying any of the phrases that other commentators have described as difficult for everyone: even out loud, repeatedly and quickly. However, I cannot say some of the other examples even once without making a mistake.

  27. Anthony said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Actually, speech therapists do use tongue twisters as a teaching tool.

  28. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    Through three cheese trees, three free fleas flew.

  29. Mark F. said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    In the late 80's, the journalist William Poundstone made a case for the following as the hardest tongue twister:

    The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.

    Perhaps this one is unfair since it's not entirely in contemporary English. But certainly the poeple he tried it on had more trouble with it than "sea sells seashells"

  30. Mark F. said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Uh, "she sells seashells".

  31. Andrew said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    Tom Vinson: I've always been puzzled by the idea that tongue twisters can be used as tests for drunkenness, given how hard I find them to say when sober.

  32. George Amis said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    There seem to be two quite different kinds of utterances people are calling tongue twisters here: long ones, like "amidst the mists and coldest frosts . . .", which are hard to get through once, and short ones, like "toy boat" and an old favorite of mine, "black bugs blood", which must be repeated rapidly several times before they fall apart. Some, like "she sells sea shells . . ." seem to need at least a couple of repetitions. So does this one, which produces results that vastly amuse 12 year old boys: "One smart fella, he felt smart. Two smart fellas, they felt smart."

  33. John Cowan said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    I find that I can perform any tongue-twister however difficult by singing it (within a narrow melodic range, so that it's not obvious what I'm doing). I confess, though, that singing them on a single note, as Rachael speaks of, is much harder.

  34. Jaosn L. said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Most of these tongue twisters seem to involve irregular alternation between consonants that are articulated very close: s vs. sh vs. th being the most common, it seems. "Peggy Babcock", however is alternation between distant ones, and is, for me at least, harder than "she sells seashells" and some other coronal-fricative ones.

    Does anyone know of tongue twisters in other languages? Maybe there are some German ones with rapid alternation between [s], [ʃ], and [ç]?

  35. Joanna Cazden said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    I'm a speech therapist, and I do use tongue-twisters. Just don't use them at the beginning of the process, when someone is struggling to make sound correctly even in simple settings. At the level of full mastery (near "graduation") they are great fun & useful. I also work with actors, whose therapy needs to go to high level of performance, & they bring ME the twisters from their prior speech classes.

    Recovery from my own mild lisp, in 2nd grade, was via "Susie's galoshes make splishes and sploshes and slooshes and sloshes as Susie steps slowly along in the mud."

    But at CalArts theater school, class rallying cry was call-and-response
    I AM A MOTHER-PHEASANT PLUCKER. (repeat)
    I PLUCK MOTHER PHEASANTS (etc)
    I AM THE PLEASANTEST MOTHER-PHEASANT PLUCKER
    THAT EVER PLUCKED A MOTHER PHEASANT.

    don't try it at home!

  36. Matt Goldrick said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    @Jason L.:For tongue twisters across languages, check out the 1st International Collection of Tongue Twisters.

    Linguistics research confirms what you noticed–that tongue twisters are particularly hard with irregular alternations of similarly articulated sounds. Joseph Kupin's 1979 U. Connecticut dissertation (distributed by Indiana University Linguistics Club in 1982) found that these sorts of patterns pervade natural tongue twisters (like the ones reported in the comments here). In laboratory experiments–with highly controlled sets of words and recorded speech–a number of researchers have found similar results.

    A recent paper by Louis Goldstein, Marianne Pouplier, and their colleagues, has argued that these effects reflect general properties of how humans (and other animals) perform actions. In general, any sequence of actions involving irregular alternations (like those found in tongue twisters) are difficult to produce at fast rates.

  37. Ray Girvan said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Dan Lufkin: "Amidst the mists and coldest frosts, with barest wrists and stoutest boasts, she thrusts her fists against the posts and still insists she sees the ghosts."

    A variant appears in Stephen KIng's 1986 It, but it's remarkably old: Google Books (see here) finds it in elocution books as far back as 1845.

  38. Kathryn said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    As a working classical singer, I've had extensive diction training. I've performed pieces in over forty-five different languages, often with extensively different phoneme sets from my native language of English. I pride myself on my ability to keep tongue twisters straight.

    I can barely get through "Through three cheese trees, three free fleas flew" even once, even at quite a moderate tempo. Clearly I have more work to do.

  39. Olga said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    @ Jaosn L. [sic?]
    My favorite German one:
    Zwischen zwei Zwetschgenzweigen sitzen zwei zwitschernde Schwalben. (contrasts [tsv] and [shw])
    And sorry, I'm too lazy to convert this to IPA.

  40. Christy said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    I had speech therapy 40 years ago when I was in elementary school. I remember tongue twisters as part of the process. Mostly it was standing in front of a mirror and watching the placement of your lips and thinking where your tongue was in relation to your teeth while reciting something. Since I was in 1st and 2nd grade, they had to be simple. I was to recite "she sells sea shells by the sea shore" and "the sixth sheik's sixth sheep is sick" for what felt like an hour to me every night at home in addition to my weekly therapy sessions. It was more likely to be ten minutes. It certainly helped. I was well known for excellent diction until high school when I purposefully altered my diction to sound more "normal" much to my mother's consternation.

  41. Stuart said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    Coming from a profoundly non-rhotic background, when I was in San Marino my efforts to say, "Trentatre trentini entrarono a trento tutti e trentattre trotterellando" were not merely huge entertainment to my hosts but also very good practice for me. My hostess told me that her class used to say it and other tongue-twisters in school (1950s) for enunciation practice.

  42. Nathan Myers said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    My admiration for Kathryn knows no bounds, and leads me to locate the following in Google's archives, as extracted from Dr Seuss's aforementioned Fox in Socks:

    Through three cheese trees three free fleas flew.While these fleas flew, freezy breeze blew.Freezy breeze made these three trees freeze.Freezy trees made these trees' cheese freeze.That's what made these three free fleas sneeze.

    Just don't get me started about the tweedle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddles.

  43. Robert said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    One I used, was "Betty Botter bought a bit of butter to bake a bit of batter with, but the bit of butter Betty Botter bought was bitter, and bitter butter would make Betty Botter's batter bitter, so Betty Botter biught a bit of better butter to bake a bit of better batter," which is full of vowel alternations.

  44. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 17, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    Love the notion of "tongue twister appreciation". They're a fun poetic medium unburdened by message, like a jingle without lyrics.

  45. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Robert, that's my favorite twister. It reminds me of a "work song" reportedly popular among antebellum American kitchen slaves, who'd sing the ditty below faster and faster as they churned cream faster and faster.

    Though not a tongue twister, per se, part of their fun, while literally slaving away, is said to have been the challenge of finishing the butter without twisting a single word.

    Come butter come, come butter come!
    Saint Peter's standing at the gate,
    Waiting for his butter cake.
    Come butter come, come butter come!

  46. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    When I was in Germany for a year after college graduation, I used tongue-twisters to try to improve my articulation in German. I can still say 'Fischers Fritz fischte Frische Fische' reasonably fast (and it helped me reach the target for a native-sounding uvular r). I think my exercises did help make me more fluent. But I remember the one that absolutely floored me: 'Blaukraut bleibt blaukraut; Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid'. Just tried it again. AAARGH.

  47. Kanou said,

    July 19, 2009 @ 3:05 am

    My favorite Japanese tongue twister is this one: "Kono takegaki ni take tatekaketa no ha takegaki ni take tatekaketakatta kara tatekakettannda". I've always found it brutally hard to say.

    Another slightly easier one is: "Uraniwa niwa niwa niwa, niwa niwa niwa, niwatori ga ita".

  48. David in Brooklyn said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    I have tried composing tongue twisters. My best:
    "The Smiths' six miffed fixed mixed-Manx cats missed sex."

  49. Alicia Brooms said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    I am a Speech Language Pathologist, and for clarification yes I use tongue twisters and know other therapists that use them as a way to elicit speech intelligibility.

  50. Peter said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    One of my favourites is in limerick form:

    If you catch a chinchilla in Chile
    And cut off its beard willy-nilly
    With a small razor blade
    You can say you have made
    A Chilean chinchilla's chin chilly

  51. Laura said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    My family spent hours of amusement listening to my French brother-in-law recite the following:
    Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle sifter
    In sifting a sieve full of unsifted thistles,
    Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.
    If Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle sifter,
    Can thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb,
    See thou, in sifting a sieve full of unsifted thistles,
    Thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb!

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