As we all know, tongue twisters can be a real mouthful. These intentionally difficult phrases are challenging to say out loud (especially quickly) because your mouth and brain don’t always cooperate with each other!
Although many tongue twisters might not make sense and may in fact be quite silly, they are actually a great tool for improving one’s fluency and pronunciation skills.
Thanks to their alliteration and rhyming, tongue twisters have actually been helping people perfect their speech for a long time, particularly in speech therapy. For this reason, public speakers—politicians, actors, news anchors, and presenters—commonly use them as a warm-up before they speak in front of an audience or a camera. Just like with physical exercise, the more you practice voicing tongue twisters out loud, the better your pronunciation will become!
In this article, we’ll dive deep into the various types of tongue twisters, provide some examples, and learn why this form of wordplay is a great tool for perfecting your speech.
What is a tongue twister?
A tongue twister is a phrase or sentence that is difficult to articulate, often due to the presence of a sequence of similar sounds. It’s typical to first encounter tongue twisters as a young student in school, where they are taught as a type of spoken or sung word game.
The main challenge of a tongue twister is in saying it quickly and accurately without stumbling over the words and getting tongue-tied. Although some tongue twisters give rise to humorous results when mispronounced, others take their amusement value from the confusion or fumbling of the speaker.
These deliberately challenging expressions were first introduced in the nineteenth century and were referred to as “elocution exercises” or “alliterative puzzles” by literary magazines.
In 1855, Alexander Melville Bell published Letters and Sounds: An Introduction to English Reading, which included the phrase “She sells seashells by the seashore” as a diction exercise. This remains one of the best-known tongue twisters.
It’s important to note that tongue twisters are not limited to English and exist in many languages. For example, in Spanish they are called trabalenguas (tangled-up tongues), and in German they are known as Zungenbrecher (tongue crusher).
Linguistics of tongue twisters
What exactly is it about tongue twisters that makes them so hard to say?
On a linguistic level, voicing a tongue twister means you must voice a series of phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that creates contrasts between words in a language. For example, the sounds /b/ and /p/ are two different phonemes, and substituting one for the other can change the meaning of a word (e.g., turning bat into pat).
When it comes to tongue twisters, many of the mix-ups that occur when attempting to say these phrases out loud can be attributed to two phonemes having similar areas of articulation in the mouth.
Fortis (strong) and lenis (weak) consonants also factor into the trickiness of pronouncing tongue twisters. These terms are used in phonetics to describe the level of tension in the vocal cords when producing consonant sounds.
For example, fortis consonants, like /p/, /t/, and /k/, result in a stronger, more forceful sound and are pronounced with greater muscular effort. On the other hand, lenis consonants, like /b/, /d/, and /g/, have a softer, more relaxed sound.
In tongue twisters, it is typical for people to replace more difficult sounds with fortis consonants in an attempt to make pronunciation easier and resolve any linguistic confusion. Phonemes, fortis, and lenis are all basic building blocks of spoken language and have a big effect on our ability (or inability) to vocalize tongue twisters.
4 types of tongue twisters
Let’s take a look at the types of tongue twisters you’re most likely to encounter:
1 Rapid alternation between similar but distinct phonemes
This type of tongue twister can be very difficult for younger speakers who regularly mix up sounds. This is because the phonemes within the phrase are too alike and can easily be confused when articulated out loud.
Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.
A second type of tongue twister is a phrase or sentence that blends together words that are either alliterative, rhyming, or both. Alliteration, especially in rapid succession, can be confusing even on its own by making it tough to distinguish between individual words. When alliteration is paired with rhyming words, it can result in a hearty tongue twister that sounds more like a jumbled singsong than anything coherent!
Example: Betty Botter bought a bit of butter. “But,” she said, “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 batter better.” So she bought a bit of butter better than her bitter butter.
3 Compound words and their stems
Another type of tongue twister is one that employs and breaks apart compound words. Generally, these phrases will rely on one main compound word (like blueberry or toothbrush) and include variations of its stem in a form of wordplay.
Example: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
4 Words or short phrases repeated rapidly
A fourth type of tongue twister is one that morphs into a linguistic challenge simply by quick repetition.
- Toy boat
- Unique New York
10 tongue twister examples
Next time you want to amuse your friends or put your tongue to the test, try out these fun tongue twisters:
1 Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?
2 Gobbling gargoyles gobbled gobbling goblins.
3 Nine nice night nurses nursing nicely.
4 If you must cross a coarse cross cow across a crowded cow crossing, cross the cross coarse cow across the crowded cow crossing carefully.
5 The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.
6 Rory the Warrior and Roger the Worrier were reared wrongly in a rural brewery.
7 A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.
8 He threw three free throws.
9 Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
10 I saw a kitten eating chicken in the kitchen.