Rhymes with language

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Email from Eric Baković:

Tom Lehrer once shared this one with me:

I cannot distinguish
some phonemes in Enguish
which causes me anguish
in learning the languish

He said he'd have been a linguist instead of a mathematician if he'd had to do it over again. Now THAT would have been something.

Tom was probably inspired by Howard L. Chace's beloved 1956 work Anguish Languish, which has been out of print for some time, although used copies seem to sell for $75 or so, and spin-offs continue to emerge from time to time.

Luckily, you can read the whole thing here, including the Introduction, which begins (more or less) like this:

A visiting professor of Anguish, Dr. ____________, [This isn't his real name, nor is it intended to be the name of any other Anguish Languish professor, living or dead.] who, while learning to understand spoken English, was continually bewildered and embarrassed by the similarity of such expressions as boys and girls and poisoned gulls, used to exclaim:

"Gracious! What a lot of words sound like each other! If it wasn't (sic) for the different situations in which we hear 'em, we'd have a terrible time saying which was which."

Of course, these may not have been the professor's exact words, because he often did his exclaiming in Anguish rather than in English. In that case he would say:

"Crashes! Water larders warts sunned lack itch udder! Egervescent further delerent saturations an witch way harem, wade hei[er haliver tam sang witch worse witch."

Dr. ____________ seems to have been a speaker of an r-less dialect of Anguish.


  1. Faldone said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Let me be the first to mention that classic, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut

  2. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    That wasn't me who brought up the subject of macaronic language. Some hacker must have broken into my account here at the Climate Research Unit and put my name on the message.

  3. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    Do you happen to know if here was scanned and OCR'd ? It's hard to explain "egervescent", "delerent" and "hei[er " otherwise.

  4. anonymous said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    Just use "calm incense"


  5. Seth Johnson said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    I think "egervescent" must be "effervescent."

  6. Bloix said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    The recent Israeli movie "The Band's Visit" turns on this sort of misunderstanding. A policeman's band from Egypt has been invited to play in Petach Tikvah, an Israeli city of 200,000; they wind up in Bet Ha-Tikvah, a fictional development town in the middle of nowhere. The error is plausible due to the absence of initial "p" in Arabic and its usual replacement with "b" when Arabic-speakers are attempting foreign words.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    "Hei[er" should be "heifer", and "haliver" (whatever that means) makes sense only if the original had "hell of a" in place of "terrible".
    The phenomenon of mishearing English words, especially is songs, is known as mondegreen.

  8. Greg said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    Not sure about the "delerent", but "hei[er" must be "heifer"; and "terrible" in the English version should probably be "hell of a" given the "haliver" in the Anguish version.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    "Delerent" is obviously the third person singular imperfect active subjunctive of "deleo, delere". What's so confusing about that?

  10. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    Er, it's supposed to be Anguish, not Latuish :-)

  11. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    I'm sure Language Log readers who aren't already familiar with it will be amused to learn about "Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames" which attempts something similar, but across two languages.


  12. ignoramus said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    sorry to but in , but why some words in English fail to rhyme, maybe it is because they not be native to the "saxo european"tongue [as in *ucks], and no similar words were adopted from the same neck of the woods and not modified/evolved from the same merchant path.
    Orange be adopted from the Dravidian and squished and squashed to suit the Jute tongue of duel or mono syllables,reduced from the Latinate poly sylables.
    Orange [2s] from naranga [3s] {naranjada} [4s] melanaracio.

    'tis best to use one letter [texing], why waste key strokes or mouth movements if 1 will do, thanks to Morse and q codes.

  13. John Cowan said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    However, the phenomenon of mis-OCRing English words, whether is songs or is otherwise, is known as rnoridegreeri.

  14. Mr Punch said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    The best of this sort of thing IMHO is the antipodean version, "Let Stalk Strine," etc., by Afferbeck Lauder (Alastair Morrison).

  15. ambrosen said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    When I first got a[n Apple] Newton, I tried to see what it would do with its handwriting recognition set to recognise whole words only, and writing in The Jabberwocky. The first line was:

    Inks Reilly and the sister tyres

    Which I was pleased with.

  16. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    English phonetics.

    I am convinced I will never, ever understand them.

  17. Adrian said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    Has anyone mentioned Professor Leberwurst yet?

  18. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 6:49 pm


    "saxo european" tongue

    …speakers of which are, of course, known as saxophones.

  19. Nicholas Waller said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    Related, I think – I saw a joke on the '"Jamaica?" "No, she went of her own accord"' lines the other day:

    – My wife went on a sailing course in Poole
    – In Dorset?
    – Yes, she'd recommend it to anyone

    This may be sliding into another area a tad, but there's a running feature on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue where new definitions are derived from deliberate word-confusion; here are some of this week's offerings:

    Tumbling – jewellery for the belly-button
    Manchester – a specialist in cosmetic surgery for lady-boys
    Lactic – a stopped clock
    Lambada – a sheep with no legs*
    E-mail – Yorkshire dialect for "The postman's come"
    Hydrangea – a warning from Tonto

    *Depends on knowing about WW2 fighter ace Douglas Bader, who'd lost his real legs in a plane crash in the 1930s.

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    The Washingtpn Post runs a neologism contest every year. My favorite from last year:

    Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

    Lots more where that came from.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 1:40 am

    An obvious typo for The Washingtpun Post.

    @John Cowan: Thank you.

    @Coby Lubliner: I think the implied substitution of "terrible" for "hell of a" is part of the joke. For instance, maybe Dr. ____________ was really trying to say "hell of a" and it got bowdlerized in the English, but not in the Anguish.

    Another practitioner of this art is the catachrest, a talking animal in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. "Dozen madder".

  22. misterfricative said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    Slightly off-topic, but in the OP, why is there a '(sic)' after 'wasn't'? As a negated counterfactual (cf: If I were you), should it be subjunctive or something? ('If it weren't'?).

    Or is it to agree with the plural of 'different situations'? (Which I think would be a mistake — or at least unnecessary — because imo the agreement should — or could — be with the singular abstract expression 'the different situations in which we hear them'.)

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 4:29 am

    @misterfricative: I would have used the subjunctive there, so I assumed that to be the reason. Agreeing with "different situations" certainly doesn't work if you recast it into present indicative: "Why does he say that? If it isn't for the different situations it must be …" vs "… If it aren't for the different situations …".

  24. andrew c said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    @Mr Punch

    …wherein beady-eyed ladies in shops will ask suspiciously, 'Emma Chizzit?' and might be answered with 'Farve ponds sex'. It was written a long time ago.

  25. misterfricative said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    @Peter Taylor: Subjunctive it is then. Thanks!

    I was quite startled by how wrong it sounded when I first tried using 'weren't' in place of 'wasn't', although now after saying it aloud a few dozen times it's beginning to sound perfectly natural. I'm finding it also helps to adopt an RP accent and pretend it's still olden times (ie 1956). It's curious how the distinct subjunctive form has fallen so rapidly into disuse, lingering on these days only in a few [semi-]fixed phrases.

  26. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Overheard conversation in Selfridge's:
    F U N E M N X?
    S V F.

    And I'm sure they weren't even green M N X!

  27. Dmajor said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    Learned that one as a kid…

    F U N E M?

    — S V F M

    F U N E X?

    — S V F X

    O K L F M N X

  28. Graeme said,

    December 12, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    Lehrer excelled at mathematics, but loved wordplay and melody more?

    Hands up. Who here juggled the three? Feel thwarted of one?

    (I was schooled in pure mathematics; teach law, but wish I had focused on language purely).

  29. Timm! said,

    December 12, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    Stanley Baxter's immortal Parliamo Glasgow


  30. Aaron Davies said,

    December 14, 2009 @ 1:08 am

    looks like it's time to repost a link to The Chaos (better known by its first line, "Dearest creature in creation")

  31. Aaron Davies said,

    December 14, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    M R snakes

    M R not!

    S A R! C M E-D-B-D Iz?

    L I B! M R snakes!

  32. Dan S said,

    December 14, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Wow! Thanks @Timm! ! Such expert switching of dilect, register, and modalities of snark!

    That video is brilliant. Even if it does bring back memories of frustrating episodes of shared-language mutual-incomprehensibility.

  33. links for 2009-12-15 « Rumblegumption said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    […] Language Log » Rhymes with language […]

  34. Drew Letchworth said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Any fan of The Anguish Languish/Ladle Rat Rotten Hut may enjoy the following link:

    An Anguish Languish Lesson 11/3/2008
    9 min – Nov 15, 2008 –
    Ladle Rat Rotten Hut in the Anguish Languish, as originated by Professor Howard L. Chace and translated by a mysterious "Sergei" individual….

    It was about six years ago while studying Robin Williams' (a female writer -not the Actor) Non-Designer's Design Book, that I discovered Howard L. Chace's Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

    It was a series of wonderful discoveries because:
    it slowly dawned on me that these were not just random words . . .
    it slowly dawned on me that this was a story . . .
    it slowly dawned on me that I knew this story . . .
    The moment I knew that it was LRRH, -everything started to fall into place, and boy was it fun!

    I've tried (and succeeded) to include that sense of discovery in this performance. The audience has the opportunity to see, hear and speak the Anguish Languish, which helps them grasp it from three directions.

    Drew Letchworth

    PS I have done some work with the 'other' Robin Williams. I played his incompetent lawyer in Mrs. Doubtfire

  35. Treesong said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    For the benefit of future readers:

    Google Books shows that the original of the quote in the OP is "Crashes! Water larders warts sunned lack itch udder! Effervescent further deferent saturations an witch way harem, wade heifer haliver tam sang witch worse witch." The OCR seems to have had trouble with its Fs.
    However, it's clear that even the original is a misrepresentation of the good professor's exclamation. 'Larders' should be 'larder'. And 'haliver' is an odd word, found mainly or only in 'haliver oil' (halibut liver oil); surely he said 'wade heifer halibut tam'.

    @Faldone: 'Ladle Rat Rotten Hut' in fact comes from Anguish Languish.

    @John Cowan: 'mis-OCRing English words…is known as rnoridegreeri: excellent!

    @Mr Punch: I owned Let Stalk Strine for years before realizing or learning that Afferbeck Lauder = alphabetical order.

    @Adrian: See the Wikipedia article that Skullturf pointed to for a reference to Morder Guss Reims: The Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript by John Hulme.

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