Tackling ticklish Tongue Twisters

Can you say ‘Good blood, bad blood’ really, really fast? Try it or challenge your friends to do so. You’ll arrive at some hilarious, tongue-twisting variations! Such groups of words or sounds, typically of an alliterative kind, difficult to pronounce quickly and correctly, are called tongue twisters. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “tongue twisters are often passed on for generations, becoming a rich part of folklore”. 

Tongue twisters are challenging to enunciate, especially when repeated rapidly. With their repetitive use of similar sounds, words and syllables, they can trip up even the most articulate individuals.

Popular tongue twisters

The most popular tongue twister is ‘She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore’. This verse is said to be inspired by the life of English fossil collector and palaeontologist, Mary Anning (1799-1847) credited with the founding of modern palaeontology. The poet Terry Sullivan wrote this verse in her memory:

She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I am sure,
So, if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I am sure she sells seashore shells.

‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’ is another popular tongue twister which has a real-world origin as well. Pierre Poivre (1719-1786) was a French pirate and horticulturalist. He used to steal from spice stores to grow them in his own garden and make exotic spices affordable to common people. (Cooking spices were called “peppers” in those days). 

Why tricky phrases are good for you

Tongue twisters are used by speech therapists to help those suffering speech difficulties. In 2013, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, published a study in the journal Nature, highlighting how tongue twisters helped the brain (through neural codes) enable smooth speech. 

Tongue twisters are also a great way to practice and improve pronunciation as well as fluency. The frequent alliteration involved helps learners of English to improve their accent. And, the repetition of the single sound due to alliteration is good practice for pronouncing diverse words the right way. Therefore, tongue twisters are used by actors, politicians, and public speakers to perfect their speaking skills. They also effectively help rhythm and tone, adding fun and humour to an otherwise dull set of drills. 

Levels of difficulty

Sometimes, tongue twisters in regional dialects are tougher than in standard English. So, the difficulty level depends on how proficient the speaker is in that dialect. In standard English, an especially complex and convoluted example has been coined by American author William Poundstone: ‘The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.’ The high use of alliteration in this sentence makes it very difficult to repeat it rapidly. 

Here’s an enjoyable exercise that you can try with your family and friends. Recite these lines below as fast as you can. Get a stop watch and score sheet, and have some tongue twisting fun!

Many an anemone sees an enemy anemone.
Freshly-fried flying fish.
A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.
A tree-toad loved a she-toad
Who lived up in a tree.
He was a two-toed tree-toad,
But a three-toed toad was she.
Ned Nott was shot and Sam Shott was not.
So it is better to be Shott than Nott.
Some say Nott was not shot.
But Shott says he shot Nott.

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