This blog post is based on the "Tongue Twisters" project on LanguageARC. To participate, click here.
A tongue twister is a phrase or string of words that is difficult to articulate, usually containing linguistic aspects like alliteration, repeating phonemes, and rhyme. When they are said rapidly, they usually challenge people and cause speech errors. They can be used for speech practice and warmups, and are additionally utilized by non native speakers of a language to train pronunciation in an entertaining and non conventional way.
Tongue twisters often include two phonemes that have high confusability, such as:
[l] and [r]
[s] and [ʃ]
[f] and [p]
Tongue Twisters and Speech Errors
Tongue twisters have been used in multiple studies to test whether combinations of similar/ repeating phonemes cause speech errors. Studies such as Schwartz, Saffran, Bloch, Dell, 1994 found a connection between the presence of similar or repeating phonemes and speech errors. However there are many other factors that could have contributed to speech errors besides the repeating or similar phonemes such as length of phrase, conditions under which the phrases were uttered, and the rate of speech. Dell, Burger, & Svec, 1997 tested whether speech rate affects speech errors. Shattuck-Hufnagel, 1987 tested whether the degree of “phrasality” of strings of words (how much sense they make when spoken) causes more errors. Dell & Repka, 1992 tested whether speech errors decrease with practice saying the utterances.
Carolyn Wilshire, the author of the paper “The ‘Tongue Twister’ Paradigm as a Technique for Studying Phonological Encoding” conducted an experiment while she was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. It investigated whether the presence of similar phoneme pairs, repeated usage of the same phonemes, and alliteration in utterances contributed to speech errors. The rate of speech was slower than spontaneous speech (about 100 words per minute versus the range of 200-400 words per minute found in spontaneous speech), and a “control” utterance (one without the presence of similar phoneme pairs or alliteration) was used. The subjects were native British English speakers ages 40-69, and subjects read the utterances while keeping a steady tempo regardless of if they made errors. The outcome of this experiment found a correlation between utterances with similar phoneme pairs and speech errors. For the control utterance, the percentage of speech error was less than utterances with alliterating/dissimilar phonemes and alliterating/ similar phonemes (the latter produced the largest percentage of errors).
Tongue Twisters in Different Languages
Betty bought a bit of butter,
But the butter was so bitter,
So she bought some better butter,
To make the bitter butter better."
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.
裏庭には二羽、庭には二羽鶏がいる (Uraniwa ni wa niwa, niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru)
In the backyard, there are two, and in the front yard, there are two chickens.
Sju sjösjuka sjömän sköttes av sju sköna sjuksköterskor.
Seven seasick sailors were cared for by seven beautiful nurses.
Tâm tưởng tôi tỏ tình tới Tú từ tháng tư, thú thật, tôi thương Tâm thì tôi thì thầm thử Tâm thế thôị.
Tam thought I loved Tu since April but in truth I loved Tam, so I tried to tell Tam that.
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?
Bābǎi biāobīng bēn běi,
pàobīng bìngpái běibian pǎo
Eight hundred spearmen rush towards north hill slope
Artillery soldiers abreast in rows run towards the north.
Finger fumblers are the sign language equivalent to a tongue twister. The signs are very similar, which makes it difficult to sign.
Good blood, bad blood (this expression is actually both a finger fumbler in ASL and a tongue twister in English)
Head to LanguageARC to participate in the Tongue Twisters and other citizen science language projects. Find LanguageARC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, or heard directly to the LanguageARC website to contribute. Look forward to more blog updates in the future.
Wilshire, C. E. (1999). The "Tongue Twister" Paradigm as a Technique for Studying Phonological Encoding. Language and Speech, 42, 57.
Dell, G. S., Burger, L. K., & Svec, W. R. (1997). Language production and serial order: A
functional analysis and a model. Psychological Review, 104, 123-144.
Shattuck-Hufnagel, S. (1979). Speech errors as evidence for a serial ordering mechanism in sentence production.
Dell, G. S., & Repka, R. J. (1992). Errors in inner speech. In B. J. Baars (Ed.), Experimental slips and human error.' Exploring the architecture of volition (pp. 237-262). New York: Plenum Press.
Schwartz, M. E, Saffran, E. M., Bloch, D. E., & Dell, G. S. (1994). Disordered speech production in aphasic and normal speakers. Brain and Language, 47, 52 88.