The challenges of English pronunciation

A dear friend of mine who, like me, loves languages and words, recently sent me this poem.

Apparently, if you can correctly pronounce every word in this, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. (The tricky thing, of course, is knowing for certain that you are pronouncing them correctly!)

So, go on, get those synapses firing in your brain – and let me know if you manage to read the whole thing aloud in one go, without stumbling to a halt somewhere along the line, as you literally feel your brain seize up?

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;

Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;

One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.

Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

I do not know for sure who the author of this tongue-twisting brain-scrambler is – some say it is Bernard Shaw, but I have also seen it attributed to Gerard Nolst Trenité, under the rather appropriate title “The Chaos” (1922) (Wikipedia).

If you need some help with the pronunciation, a courageous British YouTuber has uploaded her version of it here (though it sometimes uses slightly different words to those above).

And if you succeed in getting through the whole thing in one go, you have earned yourself a Gold Star. Here you go:

27 thoughts on “The challenges of English pronunciation

    • Yes, it is! When I read the poem out aloud for the first time, I ‘seized up’ about 1/3rd of the way… needed a break; it felt as though my brain was readjusting. Then came back and did it again, slowly, all the way through. Can you imagine being a foreigner and trying to learn how to pronounce these words correctly? How would you explain the inconsistencies in pronunciation if you’re a teacher? Tough…

  1. I don’t get a gold star. I stumbled along the way. How does anyone learn English?? I am slowly learning Italian. The pronunciation is relativle easy as you pronounce every vowel and consonant and it is always the same. There are slight differences with the stress on the syllables, but that is not too hard to learn. The grammar however, is most difficult as the sentence construction is much more complicated than English and the verb tenses do my head in. I struggle along with the present tense and one form of the past tense. I am slowly getting better each trip to Italy.

    • Oh dear, well, how about we give you a SILVER star for trying your best?

      Feel better, bagnidilucca?

      And personally, I think you have earned the Gold Star for trying to learn Italian! Anyone who makes the effort to learn another language, other than their mother tongue, deserves acknowledgement and applause. I’m sure it has opened up the world around you, though, hasn’t it? Has it added another dimension to getting to know people, places, cultures, histories, etc.?

    • I also didn’t know some of the words, Kathy! So glad to hear I’m not the only one! I was guessing at the pronunciation of some of those words – I mean, what about Terpsichore and Melpomene? And foeffer, paling (Pointed sticks used in making fences) or groats (the hulled and crushed grain of oats, wheat, or certain other cereals)?

      I just did a search for “foeffer” – it seems to be a misspelling of “foeffer”, which, according to the Free Dictionary is a noun in law referring to “One who grants a feoffment.” In case that does not clarify anything at all (well, it didn’t for me), a “feoffment” is a term used in the feudal system to mean “A grant of lands as a fee” or “(Historical Terms) (in medieval Europe) a lord’s act of granting a fief to his man” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/feoffment). Not sure how widespread the use of this term is in the modern age though…

      So there you have it. 😉

  2. Pingback: Read this . . . | Notes from Africa

  3. Brilliant! I had a good chuckle working my way through all of this.. I think I got most of it – but as there is no-one around to correct me – it’s hard to really know 🙂
    All I can say, is thank goodness I don’t have to learn English as a second language!

    • Aw, oh dear. Well, Oregon Sunshine, I think you’ve earned yourself a silver star too. 🙂 Well done on making it through to the end!

      And welcome to my blog – I hope you’ll enjoy browsing around all the articles about our part of the world.

  4. But, but … query does rhyme with very. I was going to say that rhymes-with-very is the American pronunciation, but I looked in a couple online dictionaries, and it just seems to be listed as an alternate pronunciation.

    • Laura, I’m not sure how you’re pronouncing ‘query’ and ‘very’, but I seem to hear a subtle difference between the two ‘e’s. The ‘e’ in ‘query’ sounds more like ‘queen’, and the ‘e’ in ‘very’ sounds more like ‘berry’.

      I don’t know the phonetic alphabet, though, so unfortunately I can’t include the transcription. Interesting, though, about different people’s accents… even more confusing for a non-English-mother-tongue speaker!

    • Most people I know pronounce both “query” and “very” as rhyming with “berry” (the way it’s pronounced in the audio link here). So basically, the “er” sounds like “err”, not “ear”. I’ve heard the other pronunciation, but generally from people who aren’t from the US.

      However… most of the time, I hear the word “query” used in reference to databases. There are some words that seem to take on different pronunciations in technical contexts. For example, in non-technical contexts, the word “route” has different pronunciations — it can rhyme with “pout” or it can be pronounced the same as “root”, but when talking about computer networking, it almost always rhymes with “pout” (mostly because people want to distinguish it from “root”). I personally grew up pronouncing “route” as “root”, so I still use that pronunciation in non-technical contexts, but I always rhyme it with “pout” when talking about computer networks.

      The point of this long digression is that I’m not sure whether the “query” I’m hearing reflects what most people say most of the time in conversation, or whether it’s another word that’s taken on a different pronunciation due to context.

      • Ahhhh, that is interesting. I’ve also noticed the difference in pronunciation of route (sounding either like “root” or “pout”), but thought it was a peculiarly American pronunciation.

        I must admit that I have never heard “query” pronounced like “very” hereabouts – I shall pay more attention to that in future! I think it too may be a primarily American way of saying the word. The next American tourists I encounter, I am going to buttonhole them about that! 😉

  5. Oh jeez louise, Reggie! This is what I’d call “tongknopers”.

    I had to laugh at myself as I forgot English rules of pronounciation (which is confusing to begin with) before I got halfway through. Maybe because I kept reading faster, and faster. Weird, but fun. 😉

    • “Tongknopers”! Brilliant! I didn’t know that word exists in Afrikaans – ‘tongue twisters’ in English, right?

      I also think English rules of pronunciation are *very* challenging, particularly for non-mother-tongue speakers.

      Glad you enjoyed the challenge though!

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