Peter Piper’s pickled peppers and other tongue twisting words to trip over
Published 4:58 pm Friday, November 12, 2021
So I heard that November 8 was apparently “International Tongue Twister Day” and I just couldn’t resist. With as much as I love languages, you know I had to go learn more about the myriad of tongue twisters that English has to offer. It sounds like another fun word topic to explore and I had to share what I found.
One of the most well-known tongue twisters dates back to at least 1836 when it was published in “Peter Piper’s Practical Principals of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation.” (Yes, the title is also kind of a tongue twister for being so unwieldy to say.) According to the book, the fun twister goes like this: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers? If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”
I swear when I was kid, I learned this as “Peter Piper picked a PAIL of pickle peppers…” I’m not sure how or why I learned a different version, but I suppose there are plenty of opportunities for little rhymes like this to change in the almost 200 years since it was published.
(Sidenote, but the Peter Piper book is full of other tongue twisters mostly lost to the sands of time. It has one for every letter of the alphabet, each one with the same structure as the pickled peppers one. My personal favorites are “Billy Button bought a butter’d biscuit…” and “Lanky Lawrence lost his lass and lobster…”)
Tongue twisters play off literary techniques like alliteration (when words with the same starting sound are next to each other in a sentence) to make the phrases more difficult to say.
An interesting article from nature.com in 2013 suggests that tongue twisters can be difficult because there are different categories of consonant and vowel sounds, and our brain can sometimes get “tied up”, so to speak, when trying to speak several of the same category in a row. The example given is that the “sss” and “shh” sounds are made with the front of your tongue (as opposed to the back of your tongue or your lips), so “Sally sells seashells” can be hard to say because the sounds made by the front of your tongue are basically “overlapping” in your brain. But if you said something like “Mally sells sea-smells”, you wouldn’t have any trouble, because there’s more variation there. The “ma” sound comes from your lips.
Actually, tongue twisters are good practice for people who are working to improve speech impediments or even for people who are simply getting ready for some public speaking.
What I particularly like about tongue twisters, however, is that they oftentimes make no sense at all. They’re just a collection of words meant to trip you up in pronunciation. But I often find myself chuckling too if I think about the words too long. Like simple ones such as “eleven benevolent elephants”, “really leery, rarely Larry”, and “rubber baby buggy bumpers.”
All weird concepts to think about, but all fun words to say. How fast can you say those? How many times can you repeat them before getting tongue tied?
Those above examples came from the website mondly.com which features a whole blog post dedicated to sharing a wide variety of tongue twisters. Here are a few more examples that I personally find very amusing or difficult that the rest of you can try out:
“Six sleek swans swam swiftly southwards.”
“Twelve twins twirled twelve twigs.”
“If a dog chews shoes, whose shoes does he choose?”
“Betty Botter bought some butter but, said she, the butter’s bitter. If I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter. But a bit of better butter will make my bitter batter better. So she bought some better butter, better than the bitter butter, put it in her bitter batter, made her bitter batter better. So it was better Betty Botter bought some better butter.”
“Rory the warrior and Roger the worrier were reared wrongly in a rural brewery.” (I personally can’t say this one! R’s trip me up sometimes and somehow morph into w’s.)
“Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager managing an imaginary menagerie.” (I can’t imagine that, to be honest.)
“Can you can a canned can into an un-canned can like a canner can can a canned can into an un-canned can?”
And this one’s my favorite: “If you must cross a course cross cow across a crowded cow crossing, cross the cross coarse cow across the crowded cow crossing carefully.” (That’s just good advice, right?)
Does your tongue (and brain) feel sufficiently twisted now after reading all those?
As a bonus, since it was called “International” Tongue Twister Day, here is a Spanish one and a Japanese one:
“Cuando cuentes cuentos, cuenta cuantos cuentos cuentas cuando cuestes cuentos” (Spanish) which translates to “When you tell stories, say how many stories you tell when you tell stories.”
“Niwa ni wa niwatori ga niwa imashita” (Japanese) which translates to “There are two chickens in the yard.”
It just goes to show that wherever you go in the world, you can twist words to have fun. Laughter translates just fine in any language.
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.