A tongue twister is a sequence of words or phrases that are designed to be difficult to articulate properly, even if the words and phrases are very familiar. Usually, tongue twisters are very rare in common speech. They are purposefully designed to be hard to pronounce for the purpose of humor or amusement. Sometimes, they can be used for educational purposes as they serve as a nice little exercise to improve pronunciation.
The following are believed to be the hardest tongue twisters in the English language. In fact, #1 is dubbed by researchers from MIT as the world’s most difficult tongue twister, and #4 currently sits on the 1st place in The Guinness Book of World Records. But the rest are just as hard; their repeated pronunciation is difficult even for native speakers. Remember, there are criteria for correct pronunciation here: speed and clarity. It’s not just about how fast you are, it’s also about how clear. Don’t forget to share your favorites from the list. ?
But what makes tongue twisters very difficult to pronounce? The difficulty found in articulating tongue twisters is actually an interesting linguistic phenomenon. The difficulty arises from combining sounds that are very similar to each other and that usually require similar vocal tract movements, such as “sss” and “shhh.” These sounds, when put next to one another, confuse our brains as their representations overlap. This becomes especially tricky when a lot of these sounds are put next to each other. They require a rapid sequence of overlapping neural patterns that simply overwhelms the brain.
According to a recent study, led by a research team at The University of California, San Francisco, tongue twisters are hard because their representations in the brain greatly overlap. For example, the brain recognizes both “ss” and “shh” to be pronounced at the front of the mouth using the tip of the tongue. That’s why the brain easily confuses these sounds than those articulated in different areas of the mouth.
That’s why, if you alternate the sounds in a typical tongue twister, it gets easy to pronounce and it’s not a tongue twister any more. “She sells seashells by the seashore” is very difficult. However, “he sells sea snails by the green door” is bananas to pronounce. Simply put, our brains get mixed up when enunciating syllables that sound similar. Read more about this study [here].
Tongue twisters are very common across all languages and they are part of the folklore of every culture. So next time you come across one and wonder why your tongue jams, know you know why.
If you happen to know other languages, here are some tongue twisters from other languages to test and practice your pronunciation:
“Una cacatrepa trepa tiene tres cacatrepitos. Cuando la cacatrepa trepa trepan los tres cacatrepitos.“
(A climbing caterpillar has three baby caterpillars. When the climbing caterpillar climbs the three baby caterpillars climb.)
Fischers Fritze fischt frische Fische; Frische Fische fischt Fischers Fritze.”
(Fritz, the fisherman’s son, fishes for fresh fish; For fresh fish fishes Fritz, the fisherman’s son)
“Je suis ce que je suis, et si je suis ce que je suis, qu’est-ce que je suis ?”
(I am what I am, and if I am what I am, what am I ?)
“Uraniwa ni wa niwa, niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru.”
(There are two chickens in the back yard, and two in the front yard.)