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The Ancient Game Of Tongue-twisters

March 2023
4min read

Chief, Folklore Section, The Library of Congress

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:

Bitty Batter bought some butter “But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter. If I put it in my batter, It will make my batter bitter.” So she bought some better butter, And she put the better butter in the bitter batter, And made the bitter batter better. Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle-sifter, While sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles, Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb. Now if Theophilus Thistle, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles, Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb, See that thou, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles, Thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb. Success to the successful thistle-sifter!

The surrealistic, Daliesque quality inherent in the longer twisters carries over also into a good majority of the shorter ones. This quality, like the “nonsense” words in many of the cumulative folksongs for children adds to their enjoyment by youngsters.

A skunk sat on a stump, The stump thunk the skunk stunk, The skunk thunk the stump stunk. Six gray geese grazing gaily into Greece. “What eat ye, gray geese? Green grass, gray geese?” Five brave maids, sitting on five broad beds, braiding broad braids. I said to those five brave maids, sitting on five broad beds, braiding broad braids, “Braid broad braids, brave maids.” A haddock, a haddock, a black-spotted haddock, A black spot on the black back of a black-spotted haddock. A cup of proper coffee in a copper coffee pot. There’s blood on the rubber baby buggy bumpers. The crow flew over the river with a lump of raw liver in his mouth. She sawed six slick, sleek, slim, slender saplings. I go by a Blue Goose bus. Cross crossings cautiously. The seething sea ceaseth, and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.

Several informants wrote of a game which they enjoyed in their youth, a game which obviously must have contributed much to the tongue-twister repertoire. Quite simply, it consists of concocting long sentences and beginning each word in the sentence with the same letter followed by vowel or consonant combinations to produce a twister:

Six sick soldiers sighted seven slowly sinking ships. Frivolous fat Fannie fried fresh fish furiously Friday forenoon for four famished Frenchmen.

With these sentences we have come, pedagogically, full circle to Mr. Shoemaker and his “recreations in articulation”: in these late and degenerate days, such sentences must surely be termed “vocabulary builders!”

The folk perversely call them tongue-twisters, and enjoy them.


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