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Tongue Twisters: Fun and Useful

Updated on April 1, 2018
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Words, wordplay, reading, and writing have been favorites of Liz's since early childhood. She enjoys exploring science and science fiction.

Tongue Twisters?

You might feel as if your tongue is acting this way after trying out several of these tricky phrases in a row
You might feel as if your tongue is acting this way after trying out several of these tricky phrases in a row | Source

What Are Tongue Twisters?

By the time a child is in third or fourth grade, most have learned at least a couple of these tricky word phrases. At its simplest, a tongue twister is a series of words that have such similar sounding beginning combinations that they become difficult to say without mispronouncing at least some of the words.

The trick is sometimes a form known as alliteration, where all the words actually start with the same letter, or pair of letters, and other times, simply repeating letters in the middle of the word that can trip you up. For example, “rubber baby buggy bumpers.”

Most of us are probably familiar with the popular ones that have been around the longest, such as, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” or, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

If you are not careful with your speech, it is very easy to mix up the sounds and trip over your tongue as it were, and make some very funny sounding mistakes.

In the case of good old Peter Piper, the collection of letter “k’s” in the middle makes possible an error that can cause an embarrasing and crude error: usually happens in the last word of the phrase. I’m sure you can figure it out without me having to tell you and thereby violate 'family friendly standards.'

Why Bother With Tongue Twisters?

On the simplest level, they are just plain silly fun; children especially enjoy the hilarity of rattling off these tricky sentences, and often end up “ROFL” or “rolling on the floor laughing,” to borrow a current internet shorthand phrase.

There is a more serious side, though. These hard-to-say bits of nonsense have long been used to train people who must be very careful with their diction, such as:

  • actors
  • singers
  • public speakers
  • television newscasters

Sometimes, they can be used to help ESL students, or in speech therapy classes.

In days gone by, there would be actual classes held to learn how to speak clearly and efficiently. This was called “elocution.” There was more to these classes than just learning to say tongue twisters without stumbling, though.

They also included style, delivery, making an effective speech, and how to use emphasis. Similar training is still used, though I’m sure there is a more modern term for it; probably nothing more complicated-sounding than just plain old, “public speaking.”

Say That Three Times--Fast!

Ah, there’s the rub! It’s easy enough to learn to navigate these tricky bits; but most people, in doing so, will slow down their normal speech pattern by a significant amount.

Try it at normal speed, and you’re liable to instantly get into trouble--your tongue will indeed get twisted around the words.

Trying to speak them at an even faster-than-normal delivery is practically guaranteed to foul you up and reduce you to a fit of giggles.

Try These Out For Yourself:

Here is a selection of some of my personal favorites. Some date back to my grandparent’s era, and might be unfamiliar to modern folks. That makes them all the more fun. They are simply nonsensical phrases put together for their alliterative qualities. You’ll find here, that there’s more to Peter Piper than appeared above.

  • Red rubber buggy bumpers
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many peppers did Peter Piper pick, and where did Peter Piper put the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
  • How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? He'd chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
  • I saw Susie sitting in a shoe shine shop. Where she sits, she shines, where she shines, she sits.
  • Can you can a can as a canner can can a can?
  • Green glass globes glow greenly.

This last one is a real doozy! I'm pretty good at tongue twisters, but this one always fouls me up somewhere along the way:

The sick sixth’s sheik's sheep’s sick.

A Great Example

Oh--I mentioned singers? Here’s a classic from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, sung as the final chorus in the song, "I Am So Proud.":

“To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!”

Ah, but that’s not the end of it--this tongue-twisting phrase is repeated three times in succession, and fairly rapidly at that. It’s a real challenge for the actors who must not only get all the pronunciations correct, but clearly spoken and understood--and in song on top of it all! Bad enough at that, but each repetition is sung even faster than the last. .... and .... in the clip below, the audience demands an encore!

A Tongue-Twisting Operatic Aria

© 2012 Liz Elias


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