Last updated

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. Additionally, they can be used as exercises to improve pronunciation and fluency. Some tongue-twisters produce results that 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

Some tongue-twisters rely on rapid alternation between similar but distinct phonemes (e.g., s[s] and sh[ʃ]), combining two different alternation patterns, [1] familiar constructs in loanwords, or other features[ which? ] 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. [2]

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

These deliberately difficult expressions were popular in the 19th century. The popular "she sells seashells" tongue twister was originally published in 1850 as a diction exercise. The term tongue twister was first applied to this kind of expressions in 1895.

"She sells seashells" was turned into a popular song in 1908, with words by British songwriter Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford. According to folk etymology, it was said to be inspired by the life and work of Mary Anning, an early fossil collector. [3] However, Winick was unable to find direct evidence that Anning inspired the tongue-twister nor that Sullivan was aware of this. [4]

She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells by the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.

Another well-known tongue twister is "Peter Piper":

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked

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.[ citation needed ] An example of this is the song "Betty Botter" ( Loudspeaker.svg listen  ):

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

There are also twisters that make use of compound words and their stems, for example:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck
if a woodchuck would chuck wood.

The following twister won a contest in Games Magazine in 1979: [5]

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!").[ citation needed ] Examples include:

Some tongue twisters are used for speech practice and vocal warmup: [6]

The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue,
the tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips.

Tongue twisters are used to train pronunciation skills in non-native speakers: [7]

The sheep on the ship slipped on the sheet of sleet.

Other types of tongue twisters derive their humor from producing vulgar results only when performed incorrectly:

Old Mother Hunt had a rough cut punt
Not a punt cut rough,
But a rough cut punt.

Some twisters are amusing because they sound incorrect even when pronounced correctly:

Are you copperbottoming those pans, my man?
No, I'm aluminiuming 'em Ma'am.

In 2013, MIT researchers claimed that this is the trickiest twister to date: [8] [9]

Pad kid poured curd pulled cod

Linguistics of tongue-twisters


Based on the MIT confusion matrix of 1620 single phoneme errors, the phoneme with the greatest margin of speech error is l [l] mistaken for r [r]. Other phonemes that had a high level of speech error include s[s] mistaken for ʃ [sh], f [f] for p [p], l [l] for r [r] and r [r] for l [l], w [w] for r [r], and many more. [10] These sounds are most likely to transform to a similar sound when placed in near vicinity of each other. Most of these mix-ups can be attributed to the two phonemes having similar areas of articulation in the mouth. [11]

Pronunciation difficulty is also theorized to have an effect on tongue twisters. [10] For example, t [t] is thought to be easier to pronounce than tʃ [ch]. As a result, speakers may naturally transform tʃ [ch] to t [t] or when trying to pronounce certain tongue twisters.

Fortis and lenis

Fortis and lenis are the classification of strong and weak consonants.

Some characteristics of strong consonants include: [10]

It is common for more difficult sounds to be replaced with strong consonants in tongue-twisters. [10] This is partially determinant of which sounds are most likely to transform to other sounds with linguistic confusion.


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.[ citation needed ] An example is Georgian baq'aq'i ts'q'alshi q'iq'inebs ("a frog croaks in the water"), in which q' is a uvular ejective. 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 sound in Czech, Slovak and some other Slavic languages.


The sign language equivalent of a tongue twister is called a finger-fumbler. [12] [13] According to Susan Fischer, the phrase Good blood, bad blood is a tongue-twister in English as well as a finger-fumbler in ASL. [14]

One-syllable article

One-syllable article is a form of Mandarin Chinese tongue twister, written in Classical Chinese. Due to Mandarin Chinese having only four tonal ranges (compared to nine in Cantonese, for example), these works sound like a work of one syllable in different tonal range when spoken in Mandarin, [15] but are far more comprehensible when spoken in another dialect.

See also

Related Research Articles

In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are, pronounced with the lips;, pronounced with the front of the tongue;, pronounced with the back of the tongue;, pronounced in the throat; and, pronounced by forcing air through a narrow channel (fricatives); and and, which have air flowing through the nose (nasals). Contrasting with consonants are vowels.

Modern Hebrew is phonetically simpler than Biblical Hebrew and has fewer phonemes, but it is phonologically more complex. It has 25 to 27 consonants and 5 to 10 vowels, depending on the speaker and the analysis.

Onomatopoeia Word whose pronunciation imitates sound of its denotation

Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as "oink", "meow", "roar" and "chirp". Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as "tick tock" in English, "tic tac" in Spanish and Italian, "dī dā" in Mandarin, "katchin katchin" in Japanese, or "tik-tik" in Hindi.

Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical properties of speech. The field of phonetics is traditionally divided into three sub-disciplines based on the research questions involved such as how humans plan and execute movements to produce speech, how different movements affect the properties of the resulting sound, or how humans convert sound waves to linguistic information. Traditionally, the minimal linguistic unit of phonetics is the phone—a speech sound in a language—which differs from the phonological unit of phoneme; the phoneme is an abstract categorization of phones.

In phonetics, rhotic consonants, or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including ⟨R⟩, ⟨r⟩ in the Latin script and ⟨Р⟩, ⟨p⟩ in the Cyrillic script. They are transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet by upper- or lower-case variants of Roman ⟨R⟩, ⟨r⟩:, ,, ,, ,, and.

In literature, alliteration is the conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words, even those spelled differently. As a method of linking words for effect, alliteration is also called head rhyme or initial rhyme. For example, "humble house," or "potential power play." A familiar example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers". "Alliteration" is from the Latin word littera, meaning "letter of the alphabet"; it was first coined in a Latin dialogue by the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano in the 15th century. Alliteration is used poetically in various languages around the world, including Arabic, Irish, German, Mongolian, Hungarian, American Sign Language, Somali, Finnish, Icelandic.

Figure of speech Word or phrase entailing an intentional deviation from literal meaning to produce a rhetorical effect

A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetorical effect. Figures of speech are traditionally classified into schemes, which vary the ordinary sequence or pattern of words, and tropes, where words are made to carry a meaning other than what they ordinarily signify.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Someone who engages in this study is called a linguist. See also the Outline of linguistics, the List of phonetics topics, the List of linguists, and the List of cognitive science topics. Articles related to linguistics include:

In phonetics, the airstream mechanism is the method by which airflow is created in the vocal tract. Along with phonation and articulation, it is one of three main components of speech production. The airstream mechanism is mandatory for sound production and constitutes the first part of this process, which is called initiation.

Phonological awareness is an individual's awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of words. Phonological awareness is an important and reliable predictor of later reading ability and has, therefore, been the focus of much research.

In linguistics, redundancy refers to information that is expressed more than once.

Peter Piper Nursery rhyme

"Peter Piper" is an English-language nursery rhyme and well-known alliteration tongue-twister. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19745.

The Tawbuid language is a language spoken by Tawbuid Mangyans in the province of Mindoro in the Philippines. It is divided into eastern and western dialects. The Bangon Mangyans also speak the western dialect of Tawbuid.

Articulatory gestures are the actions necessary to enunciate language. Examples of articulatory gestures are the hand movements necessary to enunciate sign language and the mouth movements of speech. In semiotic terms, they are the physical embodiment (signifiers) of speech signs, which are gestural by nature.

Betty Botter is a tongue-twister written by Carolyn Wells. It was originally titled "The Butter Betty Bought." By the middle of the 20th century, it had become part of the Mother Goose collection of nursery rhymes.

A speech sound disorder (SSD) is a speech disorder in which some speech sounds in a child's language are not produced, are not produced correctly, or are not used correctly. The term "protracted phonological development" is sometimes preferred when describing children's speech, to emphasize the continuing development while acknowledging the delay.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck American English language tongue-twister

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck is an American English-language tongue-twister. The woodchuck, a word originating from Algonquian "wejack", is a kind of marmot, regionally called a groundhog. The complete beginning of the tongue-twister usually goes: "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" The tongue-twister relies primarily on alliteration to achieve its effects, with five "w" sounds interspersed among five "ch" sounds, as well as 6 "ood" sounds.

In phonetics, ingressive sounds are sounds by which the airstream flows inward through the mouth or nose. The three types of ingressive sounds are lingual ingressive or velaric ingressive, glottalic ingressive, and pulmonic ingressive.

A lisp is a speech impairment in which a person misarticulates sibilants. These misarticulations often result in unclear speech.

The term alliteration was invented by the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano (1426–1503), in his dialogue Actius, to describe the practice common in Virgil, Lucretius, and other Roman writers of beginning words or syllables with the same consonant or vowel. He gives examples such as Sale Saxa Sonābant "the rocks were resounding with the salt-water" or Anchīsēn Agnōvit Amīcum "he recognised his friend Anchises" or Multā Mūnīta Virum Vī "defended by a great force of men".


  1. Speech Science: Tongue Twisters and Valley Girls
  2. Poundstone, William. "The Ultimate". Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  3. Shelley Emmling. "The Fossil Hunter" . Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  4. Stephen Winick (26 July 2017). "She Sells Seashells and Mary Anning: Metafolklore with a Twist" . Retrieved 29 June 2018.
  5. Contest announced in an issue of November/December 1979; results announced in an issue of March/April 1980
  6. Gordon, David. "David Gordon's Favorite Vocal Warmup Tongue Twisters" . Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  7. Journal, Arab World English; Mu’in, Fatchul; Amrina, Rosyi; Amelia, Rizky (2017-12-29). "Tongue Twister, Students' Pronunciation Ability, and Learning Styles". Retrieved 2020-10-10.
  8. Annear, Steve (5 December 2013). "MIT Researchers Say They Have Created The Trickiest Tongue Twister To Date". Boston . Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  9. Can You Tackle the World's Trickiest Tongue Twister? by Samantha Grossman, Time magazine, December 5, 2013
  10. 1 2 3 4 Shattuck-Hufnagel, Stefanie; Klatt, Dennis H. (1979-02-01). "The limited use of distinctive features and markedness in speech production: evidence from speech error data". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 18 (1): 41–55. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(79)90554-1. ISSN   0022-5371.
  11. Acheson, Daniel J.; MacDonald, Maryellen C. (April 2009). "Twisting tongues and memories: Explorations of the relationship between language production and verbal working memory". Journal of Memory and Language. 60 (3): 329–350. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2008.12.002. ISSN   0749-596X. PMC   3001594 .
  12. Hanson, Vicki (1991). "Tongue-Twister Effects in the Silent Reading of Hearing and Deaf College Students" (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language. 30 (3): 319–330. doi:10.1016/0749-596X(91)90039-M via Google Scholar.
  13. Roper, Jonathan (2011). Alliteration in Culture. Springer. p. 8. ISBN   9780230305878.
  14. Aristar, Anthony; Dry, Helen (27 May 1991). "Linguist List, Vol. 2". University of Michigan . Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  15. "15 Chinese Tongue Twisters". maayot. Retrieved 6 September 2020.
  16. Philip Nel, "Dr. Seuss: American Icon", 2005, ISBN   0826417086, p.27
  17. Caroline Framke (14 September 2017). "BoJack Horseman is famous for being emotionally wrenching. But it's also ridiculously funny". Vox. Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  18. "KAMBA - tongue twisting table-thumping turmoil".
  19. Travis Scott (Ft. Kendrick Lamar) – goosebumps , retrieved 2021-01-25