A tongue-twister is a phrase that is designed to be difficult to articulate properly, and can be used as a type of spoken (or sung) word game. Some tongue-twisters produce results which are humorous (or humorously vulgar) when they are mispronounced, while others simply rely on the confusion and mistakes of the speaker for their amusement value.
Types of tongue-twisters
Tongue-twisters may rely on rapid alternation between similar but distinct phonemes (e.g., s [s] and sh [ʃ]), unfamiliar constructs in loanwords, or other features of a spoken language in order to be difficult to articulate. For example, the following sentence was claimed as "the most difficult of common English-language tongue-twisters" by William Poundstone.
The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.
This type of tongue-twister was incorporated into a popular song in 1908, with words by British songwriter Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford. It was said to be inspired by the life and work of Mary Anning.
She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.
A slight variant replaces "on" with "by".
Many tongue-twisters use a combination of alliteration and rhyme. They have two or more sequences of sounds that require repositioning the tongue between syllables, then the same sounds are repeated in a different sequence. An example of this is the song Betty Botter ( listen (help·info)):
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
Shep Schwab shopped at Scott's Schnapps shop;
One shot of Scott's Schnapps stopped Schwab's watch.
Some tongue-twisters take the form of words or short phrases which become tongue-twisters when repeated rapidly (the game is often expressed in the form "Say this phrase three (or five, or ten, etc.) times as fast as you can!"). Some examples include:
A Proper Copper Coffee Pot.
Betty bopper's battering batton made bertie bopper bite her.
The big black bug bled black blood.
The city sheriff shot the city cop.
The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick.
Cecily thought Sicily less thistly than Thessaly.
The sixth sitting sheet slitter slit six sheets.
Irish Wristwatch, Swiss Wristwatch.
The bog above Bob Gorman's bog.
Pleasant mother pheasant plucker.
Red Leather, Yellow Leather.
Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry.
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper.
Smiley shlug with Shloer.
Red Bulb, Blue Bulb
Yorba Linda lumber yardUnique New York.
Shibboleths, that is, phrases in a language that are difficult for someone who is not a native speaker of that language to say might be regarded as a type of tongue-twist An example is Georgian baq'aq'i ts'q'alshi q'iq'inebs ("a frog croaks in the water"), in which "q" is a sort of gulping sound. Another example, the Czech and Slovak strč prst skrz krk ("stick a finger through the throat") is difficult for a non-native speaker due to the absence of vowels, although syllabic r is a common Czech and Slovak sound.
The sign language equivalent of a tongue twister is called a finger-fumbler. According to Susan Fischer, the phrase Good blood, bad blood is a tongue-twister in English as well as a finger-fumbler in ASL.
Alliteration without tongue-twisting
Although tongue-twisters uses alliteration to make them difficult to speak, there are other uses of alliteration that do not result in tongue-twisters. For example:
- There's a train at 4:04 said Miss Jenny.
- Four tickets I'll take.
- Have you any?
- Said the man at the door.
- "Not four for 4:04,
- For four for 4:04 is too many."
No tongue-twister results in this example, because "4" is pronounced the same in all spellings.
Tongue-twisters in creative works
- The children's books by Dr. Seuss contain a significant number of tongue-twisters, with Oh Say Can You Say?, and Fox in Socks being the most extreme cases.
- In the 1952 film Singin' in the Rain, movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) uses tongue-twisters while learning proper diction so he can make the transition from silent films to "talkies" in 1920's Hollywood. He also turns one of them ("Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses") into a song and dance number along with his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor).
- In the Mad Men season 4 episode, "Blowing Smoke", a nervous, desperate-for-business Don Draper recites the tongue-twisters "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" and "red leather, yellow leather" while anxiously pacing his office, just before an important meeting with potential client Philip Morris.
- In the cartoon episode You Said a Mouseful from Pinky and the Brain, both Pinky and Brain go through a collage of tongue-twisters that cover almost every category possible.
- Poundstone, William. "The Ultimate". williampoundstone.net. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
- Shelley Emmling. "The Fossil Hunter". Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Contest announced in issue of November/December 1979; results announced in issue of March/April 1980
- Aristar, Anthony; Dry, Helen (27 May 1991). "Linguist List, Vol. 2". University of Michigan. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
- Philip Nel, "Dr. Seuss: American Icon", 2005, ISBN 0826417086, p.27
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