The Ancient Game Of Tongue-twisters


During the last century and the early part of the present one, elocution books, designed to “per fect the principles of per fect pronunciation,” enshrined in their pages such gems as: I said “a knap-sack strap,” not “a knap-sack’s strap”; His exclamation was, “Chaste stars!” not “Chase tars!”; The old cold scold sold a school coal-scuttle; Bring me some ice, not some mice; and, Did you say a notion or an ocean? J. W. Shoemaker in his Practical Elocution (Philadelphia, 1878) elevated these “recreations in articulation” above the risible in a cautionary note “To The Teacher: While many of the exercises given may create amusement in a class, a higher motive than ‘Amusement’ has prompted their insertion. Practice is here afforded in nearly every form of difficult articulation.”

On the Sunday Weekend program over the NBC radio network, to which I contribute a segment on folklore, I twice requested listeners to send in those tongue-twisters which they remembered as hand-me-down family items. The tanglers poured in, some of them obviously freshly dusted from memory’s attic, others quite as lively as current slang and jargon. Many of them, of course, had their origin in works such as Mr. Shoemaker’s. Following this “academic” acquisition of them, however, the people took them over and circulated them orally in the folk manner without reference to original sources. They also made up or happened upon their own. In all cases the twisters which follow are current today, and are a selection of those which have come in from the NBC program. They now form part of the folklore collections of the Library of Congress.

The “game” of the tongue-twister—for the edification and amusement of young and old—consists in repeating the shorter twisters three or four times rapidly from memory without stumbling. With the longer ones, once through is enough. To read them aloud, however, is relatively simple, and does not count.

In the difficult and popular s and sh cycle, I have listed the “sea shell” variants simply to illustrate the alterations, or re-creations, which occur also in the “slick saplings,” “Peter Piper,” “gray geese,” and “Bitty Batter” twisters. By way, then, of a small anthology for a rainy afternoon or a wintry evening around the fire:

She sells sea shells by the sea shore. She sells sea shells at the sea shore; At the sea shore she sells sea shells. She sells sea shells on the sea shell shore. The sea shells she sells are sea shore shells, Of that I’m sure. If neither he sells sea shells, nor she sells sea shells, Who shall sell sea shells? Shall sea shells be sold?

Continuing with the s and sh grouping:

Some shun sunshine; Do you shun sunshine? The sun shines on the shop signs. Some snuff shop snuff; Do you snuff shop snuff? Sarah saw a shot-silk sash shop full of shot-silk sashes as the sunshine shone on the side of the shot-silk sash shop. Sheep shouldn’t sleep in a shack, Sheep should sleep in a shed. Silly Sally swiftly shooed seven silly sheep; The seven silly sheep Silly Sally shooed shilly-shallied south. She stood at the door of Mrs. Smith’s fish-sauce shop welcoming him in.

The classic tongue-twister is, of course, “Peter Piper,” who is actually only the letter “P” of a once total alphabet. All of his other delightful companions—Andrew Airpump, Lanky Lawrence, Sammy Smellie, Tiptoe Tommy, Walter Waddle—live a half life on the printed page. Peter Piper alone circulates among the folk, and one of the reasons for his survival is to be found in the printed alphabet itself which was first published by J. Harris at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London, n. d.

To begin with, the small illustrated pamphlet used Peter Piper’s name in the title: Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation . The emphasis upon him continues in the introduction which states that “Peter Piper…Puts Pen to Paper to Produce these Puzzling Pages, Purposely to Please the Palates of Pretty Prattling Playfellows.” The standard form of the alphabet consists of four lines with an initial statement followed by two doubting questions:

Oliver Oglethorpe ogled an owl and oyster. Did Oliver Oglethorpe ogle an owl and oyster? If Oliver Oglethorpe ogled an owl and oyster, Where are the owl and oyster Oliver Oglethorpe ogled? 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?

Two hardy favorites, almost as popular as “Peter Piper,” are “Bitty Batter” and “Theophilus Thistle,” both of whom have their problems: