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The death of the tongue-twister

January 29, 2017

The tongue-twister; who remembers the tongue-twister? It now seems to be a forgotten art-form (does anyone, anywhere, make up new ones any more?) but I can remember when they were very much part of popular culture. Comics like the Beano and the Dandy always used to feature them on their Readers’ Page; there’d be a phrase like, say, Six Thick Thistles printed five times in a row accompanied by a cartoon of a bewildered-looking man with his tongue literally in a knot.

Some tongue-twisters achieved the status of classics; ones like Peter Pepper picked a peck of pickled pepper or She sells sea-shells by the sea-shore are, or were, as well-known as popular quotes from Shakespeare or the Bible. Incidentally She sells sea-shells was based on a real person: Mary Anning, a 19th century fossil collector who sold her finds in a shop in Lyme Regis. That shows how far back the tongue-twisting tradition goes: Anning’s dates were 1799-1847.

I once heard an expert on tongue-twisters – let’s call him a linguatorquologist – talking on the radio and he said the most difficult tongue-twisters weren’t ones with lots of similar consonants, but ones with lots of different consonants. As an example he gave the example of the name Peggy Babcock. Try saying that five times quickly.

I happen to know a French tongue-twister which works on the principle of lots of different vowels. It goes like this: Chez les Papous, il y a des Papous papas et des Papous pas-papas; et il y a des Papous a poux et des Papous pas a poux; donc chez les Papous, il y a des Papous papas a poux, et des Papous pas-papas a poux, et des Papous papas pas a poux, et des Papous pas-papas pas a poux! (Brief translation: In the Papous (a native North American tribe) there are Papous who are fathers and who are not fathers, both with fleas and without fleas.)

Anyway I’d be interested to know why the tongue-twister’s popularity has declined: any theories?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come!

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2 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Presumably these things have a peak of popularitythen fade like knock knock or what do call a man jokes but two tricky ones are “Peggy Babcock” and “Unique New York”. Not a tongue twisters but I remember as a child the hilarity caused by asking people to repeat the phrase “polish it behind the door” as quickly as possible.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Wonder if the decline in tongue twisters and jokes generally is attributable to the rise of the internet meme?

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