I was driving home from London a few weeks ago and found the road swarming with pheasants crossing the road through the village of Glympton. Immediately I started to try and recall the Phesant Plucker Song covered by many bands including The Irish Rovers, Seamus Moore and the Wurzels. This is of course includes the tongue twister.
I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son, And I’m only plucking pheasants Till the pheasant plucker’s come.
And my favourite line
I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s wife, And when we pluck together It’s a pheasant plucking life!
It got me thinking about the etymology of words and where on earth tongue twisters come from. It appears that no one is really certain of the origin of tongue twisters. There is evidence to suggest that She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore is based on the life of Mary Anning. Mary was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis.
Likewise Peter Pepper who picked a peck of pickled peppers according to Quantum Biologist was a one-armed French horticulturalist and pirate in the mid-1700’s. Back then, the term “pepper” was applied to any spice nut.
Pierre would raid Dutch stores of spices and plants to furnish his botanical garden in the Seychelles. To pickle the peppers the Dutch would rub them with lime to preserve the nuts and prevent them from germinating during shipping.
Of course regardless of the origins, several things are clear.
- They are designed to create verbal challenges by repitition of sound by using phrases that make it easy to slip hence garenteeing to provide us with lots of laughter in the process. Which is why children practice them.
- They serve a practical purpose. Used by actors and Therapists in testing pronunciation to improve accents and speech difficulties.
- They are available in all languages.
Most good tongue twisters rely on alliteration and assonance using words with similar letters or sounds, combined with tiny differences between those letters and sounds.
Our brains just cannot cope with certain quick changes in speech so it starts to create patterns that are not there, so we end up making mistakes in the sentence by changing vowels and replacing letters.
Back in 2013 the team at MIT in Boston decided to design the hardest tongue twister in the world and teams of linguists set about to repeat the phrase 10 times over without getting a single syllable wrong. So it was agreed that this nonsensical sentence “Pad kid poured curd pulled cold” is impossible to repeat.
So how did you get on?