From 'Betty Botter' to 'woodchuck', here are some alliterative tongue-twisters you need to know

English speakers take great pleasure in mastering tongue-twisters

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Fri 28 Jul 2023, 2:58 PM

We discussed alliteration last week, and I promised to follow that up with some alliterative tongue-twisters. “She sells seashells by the seashore” is perhaps the most famous in the genre, but there are many more. “Can you can a can as a canner can can a can?” is easier to say aloud than read on the page. Conversely, “If a dog chews shoes, whose shoes does he choose?” looks deceptively easy in writing but is a challenge to enunciate.

English speakers take great pleasure in mastering tongue-twisters. They improve your speaking skills, train you to pronounce words clearly, and it’s always fun, especially for the young, to play games in which you have to repeat a tongue-twister three times, fast.

Alliteration adds to the challenge of saying a tongue twister out loud. (Try “How many cookies could a good cook cook if a good cook could cook cookies?”) So does the shift from single sounds to double sounds, such as from “s” to “sh” (and back) in our first example. Changing the order of the sounds complicates this further because our tongue and brain develop “muscle memory” that makes them return to the first way the words are said, and so trip up your tongue. (“If two witches were watching two watches, which witch would watch which watch?”) Some tongue-twisters employ similar yet different sounds, such as a rhyme where only the first sound changes. (“I saw a kitten eating chicken in the kitchen.”) Others use words that sound the same and are spelled differently, such as “would” and “wood”. A famous example of this technique: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.”

A tongue-twister that used most of these tricks, and which I learned in childhood many decades ago, ran like this: “Betty Botter bought a bit of butter. But the butter Betty Botter bought was bitter, and Betty thought if she bought it for her batter, it would make her batter bitter. So Betty Botter bought a bit of better butter to make her bitter batter better.” I was never sure which was more difficult, this or the more famous “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?” Of course, the faster you say them, the greater the chance you’ll trip up!

Though alliterative tongue twisters are usually associated with children’s games, they are, in fact, extremely useful for the adults reading this column too. They help in practising speaking the language out loud, improve pronunciation and clarity, and strengthen the speaker’s fluency and articulation. Tongue-twisters are often used by actors, voiceover artistes, and public speakers (even politicians!) for their verbal vocal exercises. This one, for instance, would challenge many a top star: “How much dew does a dewdrop drop, if dewdrops do drop dew? They do drop, they do, when due, as do dewdrops drop, if dewdrops do drop dew.”

While alliteration is essential to tongue-twisters, rhyme helps too, since it makes tongue-twisters easier to remember. One of my favourite tongue-twisters is actually a limerick, which makes it easier to say than most of our other examples:

There was a fisherman named Fisher

Who fished for some fish in a fissure.

Till a fish with a grin,

Pulled the fisherman in.

Now they’re fishing the fissure for Fisher.

This verse is another classic, and it’s not as easy:

A fly and flea flew into a flue,

said the fly to the flea ‘what shall we do?’

‘let us fly’ said the flea;

said the fly ‘shall we flee?’;

so they flew through a flaw in the flue.

But for this audience it may be best to end with a multi-ethnic bilingual tongue-twisting limerick that I made up in my college days:

A young man, despite his garibi

Wished to marry his habibi, Phoebe

“But,” he said, “I must see

What the maulvi’s fee be

Before Phoebe be Phoebe my Bibi!”

More news from Lifestyle