Can you read these terrific tongue twisters out loud without getting tongue-tied?
She saw shy sheep
She sells seashells on the seashore
Bugs black blood
Rubber baby buggy bumpers
Betty Botter bought some butter
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘this butter’s bitter
If I use this bitter butter
It will make my batter bitter
I need a bit of better butter
Just to make my batter better’
Betty bought a bit of better butter
Now Betty’s batter isn’t bitter
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck
Are you copper-bottoming ‘em pans?
No, I’m aluminiuming ‘em, mum
River Wytham, River Wytham
Unique New York, Unique New York
Red lorry yellow lorry, Red lorry yellow lorry
Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
For Moses he knowses his toeses aren’t roses
Like Moses supposes his toeses to be
Minnie Mouse makes many marshmallows for Mickey Mouse to munch on
This snail is stale
Its tail is stale
And this is a stale tale
The Leith police dismisseth us, which causeth us dismay
A fly and a flea in a flue
Were caught, so what did they do?
Said the fly, ‘Let us flee!’
Said the flea, ‘Let us fly!’
So they flew through a flaw in the flue
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran
Roger Rocket ran around the river and rented a raft to ride on
Phineas Foster fishes for fat flounder
Veronica Victor vowed to view the vanguard vicariously
When the very wet Venetian vet went to Venice
His voyage was viewed with vindictive regret
By a Venetian vendor named Verity
Canals in the Alps are comparable to a lot of canyon-like canals in the capital
The enthusiasm that Theresa Thomas told of
Took the terribly thin thirty-ish Turkish thespian Theseus Thurber
Completely by surprise
What is your favourite tongue twister in English? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook.
If I came up to you and said ‘Woduvaigada?’, would you know what I meant?
What about if I added a main verb – an infinitive – afterwards: ‘Woduvaigada do?’
I’m guessing if you are a native speaker – if you have grown up listening to English your whole life – you will understand this phrase with a main verb:
However, if you are a learner of English – if you haven’t grown up with English as your main language – this lesson could help you. We’re talking about connected speech. The way that English speakers combine words in a sentence.
‘Woduvaigada do?’ = ‘What have I got to do?’ which becomes ‘What’ve I got to do?’
But how do we get a coherent sentence in English from a seemingly gibberish word? And why is it that a native speaker understands it – instinctively – while a non-native speaker may not?
The phrase ‘Woduvaigada do?’ comes from the first line of the original recording of the famous song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word (1976), above. (Super Tip: hear the syllables in more detail by playing the video at half speed or lower; just click the gear and select: Speed > 0.5.)
i. separate the words into content words (important words) and function words (grammatical words): here ‘What’ and ‘do’ are content words
ii. make any possible contractions: ‘What’ and ‘have’ make the contraction ‘What’ve’
iii. identify the stressed syllable in each content word: each content word has only one syllable, so it is stressed
iv. identify the stressed vowel sound in the stressed syllables: ‘What’ has the short o sound, while ‘do’ has the long oo sound
v. reduce the function words to make them weaker and less obvious: this is where we end up with the unusual ‘word’ ‘woduvaigada’
(We should note that it is also possible to read the sentence as ‘What do I got to do’, which is not standard English grammar but rather a mix of: ‘What do I have to do?’ and ‘What have I got to do?’ We sometimes hear ‘What do I got to do’ as a slang form, particularly in American English.)
The sentence has four weak syllables, marked in grey below:
The aim for the speaker (or singer) is to go from ‘What’ to ‘do’ as quickly as possible. The last thing we should do is put an accent (stress) on every syllable: ‘What. Do. I. Got. To. Do?’ This sounds awful and makes the sentence very difficult for a native speaker to understand, since we are relying on the stressed vowel sounds to give us most of the meaning of the sentence:
What – do?
If I said simply ‘What – do?’ while pointing at myself (‘I’) the listener could probably understand what I meant. The message is ‘What do?’ or ‘What I do?’ From this we may understand ‘What must I do?’ The problem is that ‘What do?’ has to be expressed correctly in English grammar, either via present simple – ‘What do I have to do?’ – or via present perfect: ‘What have I got to do?’ Native speakers are so familiar with the forms of these tenses that we can skate over them very quickly, barely referencing them:
In this cv connection the consonant sound t moves forward to join the schwa sound at the beginning of the contraction ‘ve’. t changes to d (assimilation), because of the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer
In this cv connection the consonant sound v moves forward to join ai and form: vai
A vc connection is what we want, so we leave it
Two of the same sounds meet: t and t. The first sound – t – disappears (elision), and the second t changes to its matching sound d. This is due to the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer
Connection 5: A vc connection is what we want, so we leave it
We further reduce weak syllables by substituting a schwa sound – the weak vowel sound in English – for any strong sounds. We do this here with the a of ‘have’ (changed to ‘ve’) and the oo of ‘to’. The o of ‘got’ becomes an a, again because of the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer.
So we end up with:
A. Wo – we clearly understand this as the question word ‘what’ – despite the missing ‘t’, because of the w sound, the strong vowel sound o, and the fact it has one syllable. No other one-syllable question word has the strong vowel sound o. The others all have different vowel sounds: ‘where’ has eir, ‘when’ has e, ‘why’ has ai, and so on.
B. The second syllable contains the moved-forward t from ‘What’ changed to d, plus an embedded schwa sound from the beginning of ‘ve’
C. ‘I’ remains a full ai sound, with the v sound which moved forward in front
D. ‘got’ loses its ending sound, but it doesn’t matter because a similar sound d follows (t and d are matching sounds – the former unvoiced and the latter voiced). o has changed to a, as noted, above.
E. The vowel sound in ‘to’ is reduced to a schwa sound; t changes to d due to a personal choice about accent (mid Atlantic) made by the singer
F. The second content word ‘do’ has a long full vowel sound and is accordingly stressed by the singer
What makes this sentence unusual is not ‘What’ + four weak syllables together but the way the artist sings them so fast to make them all fit into one beat of the song:
‘What’ve I got to’ has to fit into the same length beat as ‘do’, which ends up producing the unusual word ‘woduvaigada’, which is understood by native speakers, but may come across as babble – or just ‘too hard’ for non-native speakers. Further emphasis is added by each of the six syllables having the same note.
What are the takeaways from this lesson:
Connected speech is a thing in English: we get most of the meaning of a sentence from the stressed vowel sounds: Wo – do. Learners of English have to actively learn about connected speech if they want to sound more natural and be less difficult to listen to. [You can learn about connected speech here.]
Schwa sounds are real – and really common. If you don’t use them then you will be stressing far too many syllables in the sentence, making function words too prominent and losing much of the meaning (see 1. above).
The point about this sentence is that the only two words that are important are: ‘What’ and ‘do’. You could put a variety of different function words in between them and the meaning wouldn’t change too much. The listener understands ‘What’ and ‘do’ and the rest could just as well be: ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’:
and so on. The main purpose of the middle bit is to make clear the subject – the ‘who’ of the question – ‘I’. The singer retains the full form of I – ai – rather than changing it to a schwa sound – perhaps as a way of stressing who the subject is amidst the muddle of syllables.
4. As well as the phrase ‘What have I got to…’ there are other similar structures to learn, which have multiple reduced function words. We use these unusual ‘words’ every day, so if you don’t know them, you could be missing out. If you can learn them it will be easier to listen to and understand people speaking English, for example:
and so on.
5. It’s also important to know common slang phrases (contractions) in English which represent function word phrases, because you will hear them a lot in spoken English. For example:
Not forgetting this truly epic sentence featuring no fewer than eight syllables with function words:
How other artists have treated the line:
Blue featuring Elton John (2002): ‘What I gotta do…?’:
Joe Cocker live (1992): ‘What’ve I got to…?’ then ‘What do I got to…?’:
Nataly Dawn (2011): ‘What do I gotta do…?’:
Elton John live at the Royal Albert Hall (2002): ‘What’ve I got to do’, but very fast, almost staccato:
The hit songJar of Hearts (2010) by Christina Perri became the subject of numerous parodies due to many people mishearing the title lyrics as not ‘jar of hearts’ but the rather more odious ‘jar of farts’.
Why did this happen? Well it’s all down to connected speech and the sound connection between ‘of’ and ‘hearts’. This is a cc (consonant to consonant) sound connection and we can see in Lesson 5.7 Connected Speech that we need to change this to a vc (vowel to consonant) connection. When the second syllable in a sound connection starts with a h sound we usually delete it and then move forward the final consonant sound of the first syllable. As the voiced consonant sound v (from ‘of’) moves forward, it changes to its unvoiced equivalent f.
The first sound connection ‘jar of’ is vv (vowel to vowel), so we connect with a r sound (intrusion). ‘Of’ is a function word, so it is not stressed and after losing its final consonant sound becomes an embedded schwa sound after r: Jar r
In short, it’s too difficult for the singer to pronounce v and h together (‘of hearts’), since a vc connection is required. It’s no surprise then that such a lovely sentiment on paper (‘jar of hearts’) becomes something rather more pungently unpleasant in the listener’s ears. It’s just unfortunate that the normal process of using connected speech to create vc connections has resulted in an entirely different phrase, but one that was humorously relevant.
This week I decided to hold a spelling bee with my classes. I’ve always liked the idea of spelling bees – in fact, I just like the phrase ‘spelling bee’, although I have no idea what relevance a bee has to spelling. (Yes, I could google it. OK, so I did!)
Despite being 14-15 years old and having studied English for, on average, probably eight years, I thought it would be very unlikely that many (any?) of my Polish secondary school students would be able to pronounce all the letters of the English alphabet. Why? Because in the evenings I teach adults and in general they can’t either. There must be a point early on in the learning process in Poland where the students learn the alphabet, but whether they return to it or not seems to be a moot point.
The two word sets that I used for the quiz. Easier (l) and more difficult (r)
Procedure for a 45 min. class:
Register and question: ‘Who can write the English alphabet?’ SS (student/s) came to the board and wrote it – invariably incorrectly. We went through the errors. We said the alphabet together. SS generally sang it too (to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’). I highlighted problematic letters, e.g. the vowels A E I O U, and also G/J, Q, V, and so on. (10-15 mins)
I wrote ten words on the board (20 for higher-level groups), checked and translated them, then asked the SS to practise spelling them – then there would be a quiz. SS were supposed to practise spelling the words in pairs or groups of three. Not all groups did this, so in those cases I fast-forwarded to the quiz. (5-10 mins)
Quiz: SS sat in teams of 3-4. ROUND 1: I asked one SS from the first team to stand up and spell a word from the list, e.g. JOURNEY. If they got it right, their team got 1 point. If not, I asked the next team to spell the same word. If they got it right, they got 1 point, and I asked the following team to spell a different word. ROUND 2: When I had heard all the words spelled correctly (by a trial and error process of SS correcting their wrong answers by listening to others’ right answers), I erased the 10 words from the board and SS had to answer from memory. Of course, this proved harder, but it was possible for most SS thanks to the previous round. ROUND 3: Time-permitting we played a third round, where the words were my choice and SS had to answer from their knowledge. I chose fairly familiar words like ‘computer’, ‘window’, and ‘chair’ – things that were in the round around us. With three rounds the quiz could expand or contract to fit the remaining time and the ability of the SS. The quiz continued for as long as 25 minutes, with SS building up points. The players in the winning team got a good mark (6) as winners of the quiz.
I ensured that the set of ten words in each group (easier and harder – see above) contained all the letters of the alphabet, so that each letter would get an airing. They were also fairly easy/familiar words, so not a lot of pre-teaching was required.
In general I enjoyed being the quiz master. There was a lot of pleasure in the tension of waiting for a SS’s next letter, for example: ‘Spell QUEUE.’ ‘Q – U – E – ‘… would they get it right? I sensed other people enjoyed this too. We were willing them on to get it right. Unfortunately, most of the time, they did not.
I quickly realised that this was more of a diagnostic lesson – a lesson where we established that there was a problem with matching the shape of letters to specific sounds. The errors were typical for Polish learners of English, and things that I have heard time and again during eleven years of teaching English in Poland: A, E, and I mixed up; c and s mixed up; short e (egg) instead of long ee; g and j mixed up; ‘ha’ instead of H; ‘key’ instead of K; missing Q, ‘air’ instead of R; and missing V or ‘fow’, like in Polish. No surprises, but I was shocked at the scale of the problem. During the first stage of the lesson – writing and saying the alphabet – I tried to use mnemonics, e.g. U sounds like ‘you’, Y sounds like ‘why’, Q sounds like ‘queue’, I = I (me), and so on. It was too little too late. We didn’t scratch the surface with learning the alphabet. It was just a diagnostic lesson – we found out that the need was there! I advised SS to learn it at home in their own time.
In some groups over-competitive SS tried to ‘throw’ other competitors by suggesting the wrong letters. I let them do it to an extent because it made the student who was spelling focus and think all the harder.
I created a PPT file to use to go through the alphabet with the SS. You can download it here: The English Alphabet (Powerpoint), but as time went on I realised that it was unnecessary and better to get SS to write the alphabet on the board and see their errors right from the beginning. Similarly, I made physical cards with the ten words on at two levels (see above), but it was quicker for me to simply write these words on the board. We had more time for the quiz, without trying to set up the projector and PPT and hand out the cards.
Even fairly innocuous words like CHAIR posed serious problems for the SS in terms of spelling. In fact, listening to SS spell CHAIR was particularly painful because every letter posed a problem:
C – pronounced S
H – ‘What is it?’
A – pronounced I
I – pronounced E
R – pronounced ‘air’
A few higher-level groups asked: ‘Why do we need to do this?’ ‘I want to see whether you know the alphabet.’ Some SS felt a bit sniffy, as if this was too easy and basic for their level. In the end I was proved right by most SS’s results in the quiz. I explained that it’s a basic skill and that they should know this at their level. I gave the example of filling in forms in the UK, since many of these SS may well be spending time working or studying there. ‘It’s so you don’t get the wrong name.’ One student, Dawid, protested: ‘But it’s normal name – Dawid.’ ‘OK. Can you spell it?’ ‘Yes. D-A-W-A-D.’
Towards the beginning of one lesson the SS’s form tutor poked his head round the door to check that some SS had arrived. He quickly noticed that we were saying the alphabet, with the letters on the board. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked, slightly suspiciously. ‘We’re testing whether the students can pronounce the English alphabet.’ ‘And can they?’ ‘That’s what we’re going to find out.’ ‘Hmm,’ said the teacher, and left. I understand that learning the alphabet is most associated with children’s lessons, but experience told me that they would benefit from this ‘reminder’ – and I feel that most of them did. Later I found the teacher and mentioned the results: that almost none of the students could spell all of the words correctly with the alphabet. We talked about what could be done. The problem is that when you’re tied to the course book (as he is) pronouncing letters doesn’t come up again after the first few lessons at beginner level.
The lesson time (45 mins) passed fairly quickly with this format. It was a nice simple lesson to run – without any technology or handouts (as in YATCB Method) – and it did feel like a change from doing the setup > preparation > presentation model of the previous few weeks. However, during the quiz I had to wonder whether it wasn’t a little bit, er, dull, compared with those previous lessons.
I feel it was worth doing – to diagnose the problem – but the question now is how to build on it and ensure they learn to say the alphabet. Perhaps I can return to it during future lessons and do a five-minute quiz, rather than spending a whole lesson on it.