Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Tongue Twisters

Frequent stuttering can have a psychological or medical cause and sufferers often feel very self conscious at being different from others.

However there are other articulation problems experienced by people who are normally fluent in speech. Two types stand out: the first where articulation is mechanically difficult owing to the difficulty of moving the organs of speech rapidly in sequence. The other is where a word is confused in the mind with another, similar word. In both cases pressure stress and the risk of embarrassment or failure heighten the problem.

Here is a classic case of the first type. Australian reporter Warwick Rankin reports on a fire at the Firestone Tyre Factory and, under pressure to deliver a live report heightened by the genuinely spectacular scene before him, stumbles repeatedly. Sometimes this is the sheer urge to convey his report but particularly he stumbles over the repeated and alternating patterns of "fire", "tyre" "Firestone" and "factory".

The Fire at the Firestone Tyre Factory (MP3)

Try the phrase aloud. Notice how the teeth and lips (labio dental) are used at the front of the mouth for "f" but the tongue has to touch the back of the teeth (post dental plosive) for the "t" sound. You can probably say "f - t" rapidly without much difficulty, but add other syllables and sounds between the two and it starts to become tricky.

Now try the phrase "red lorry, yellow lorry". Here the blade of the tongue moves forward for "y" and back for "r" while the tip taps the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth for "l". This is a piece of active circuit training for the tongue which needs to concentrate to get its positions - and therefore sounds- in the right order. If this is difficult for native English speakers it becomes almost impossible for speakers whose native language is Chinese or Japanese as they naturally fail to distinguish between the "l" and "r" sounds. Similarly alternating "th" as in "then" (the voiced post dental fricative) with "th" as in "thin" (the unvoiced dental fricative) will often pose problems because the former sound is almost unknown apart from English.

Other phrases described as tongue twisters may not be so hard to pronounce in practice - "Betty bought a bit of butter ..." and "Peter Piper picked a peck ..." are simple repetition with repeated use of the lips (bi-labial) though "She sells sea shells on the sea shore" and "three short sword sheaths" are difficult because although the sounds are all sybillants the "s" and "sh" sounds are close enough together to be confusing.

So, the first type is probably most dramatic with its articulatory gymnastics, but the second stumbles over confusion with another word. It may be an urge not say a forbidden word "Don't mention the war !" to be aware that you might say "copulate" instead of "populate" or to confuse similar words as in a malapropism. This then is psychological rather than articulatory in origin.

Look at this list of tongue twisters and consider whether
a) they really deserve the label and
b) what combination of articulatory movements causes the problem.

Do you have a particular combination of consonants that causes you pronunciation difficulties?

Perfect at pronouncing English? Then you should try Twisters in other languages!

Still unphased? Get a Swedish speaker to demonstrate this one:

the key sound is something like the English "sh" but more like the sound of wind blowing through a half open wind or the rush of air when a fridge opens. Apparently it was used during WWII to check for foreign spies. If you could say it fluently you were genuinely Swedish!


 See also