From ‘Around the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran’ to ‘red leather, yellow leather’ a key part of mastering a language is being able to master its tongue twisters.
They are always decidedly odd sentences. One French tongue-twister featuring the s sound focusses on food:
combien de sous sont ces saucissons-ci? Ces saucissons-ci sont six sous. (“How much are these sausages here? These sausages here are six cents.”) While a German tongue-twister that offers a lot of practice in the pronunciation of sch portrays a rather dangerous situation:
zwei schwartze schleimige Schlangen sitzen zwischen zwei spitzigen Steinen und zischen. (“Two black slimy snakes sit between two pointed stones and hiss”).
Other favourites include:
Kuku kaki kakak kakak ku kayak kuku kaki kakek kakek ku. (Indonesian) my sisters' toenails look like my grandfathers.
Als vliegen achter vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegensvlug (Dutch) If flies fly behind flies, flies will fly like lightning.
Król Karol kupi³ Królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego (Polish) King Karl bought Queen Caroline coral-colored bead.
Far, Får får får? Nej, inte får får får, får får lamm (Swedish) Father, do sheep have sheep? No, sheep don't have sheep, sheep have lambs?
kan-jang-kong-jang kong-jang-jang-eun kang kong-jang-jang-ee-go, dwen-jang-kong-jang kong-jang-jang-eun kong kong-jang-jang-ee-da (Korean) The president of the soy-sauce factory is president Kang and the president of the bean-paste factory is president Kong.
Saya sebal sama situ sebab situ suka senyum-senyum sama suami saya sehingga sekarang suami saya suka senyum-senyum sendiri sembari sama saya (Indonesian) I hate you because you used to smile at my husband; now he likes to smile for no obvious reason when he is with me.
Peter Piper - Tongue twisters
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck(if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood that he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood
Sister Sue sells sea shells.(She sells sea shells on shore.(The shells she sells. (Are sea shells she sees.(Sure she sees shells she sells.
You've known me to light a night light(on a light night like tonight. There's no need to light a night light(on a light night like tonight,(for a night light's a slight light(on tonight's light night
Some short words or phrases ‘become’ tongue-twisters when repeated, a number of times fast (try it):
Red Leather, Yellow Leather
Unique New York
Whatever their length, words have provided excellent material for games from the earliest times. One of the more pleasing arrangements is the palindrome, which is spelt the same backwards as forwards, and can create some bizarre meanings:
neulo taas niin saat oluen (Finnish) knit again, so that you will get a beer.
Nie fragt sie: ist gefegt? Sie ist gar fein (German) she never asks: has the sweeping been done? She is very refined.
in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (Latin) we enter the circle after dark and are consumed by fire.
nipson anomemata me monan opsin (Ancient Greek) wash off my sins, not only my face (written on the edge of a well or a font in Constantinople, where ps is s5).
The Finns have three palindromic words:
saippuakivikauppias a soapstone seller
saippuakuppinippukauppias a soap cup trader
solutomaattimittaamotulos the result from a measurement laboratory for tomatoes.
Palindromes – words and sentences that read the same backwards – have been popular since ancient times. The Germans have even come up with a palindromic word – Eibohphobie –that means a fear of palindromes:
a dyma’r addewid diweddar am y da (Welsh) And here is the recent promise about the livestock
Socorram-me, subi no onibus em Marrocos (Portuguese) Help me I took a bus in Morocco.
selmas lakserøde garagedøre skal samles (Danish) Selma’s salmon red garage doors must be assembled
ein neger mit gazelle zagt im regen nie (German) a Negro with a gazelle never despairs in the rain
Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor (Latin) in Rome love will come to you suddenly
Never odd or even - Palindromes
was it a cat I saw?
do geese see God?
a man, a plan, a canal, Panama
go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog
murder for a jar of red rum
rats live on no evil star
rise to vote, sir.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and other Extraordinary Words from around the World
by Penguin Books)