Terribly Tough Tongue Twisters

Please ShareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg thisEmail this to someonePrint this page

By Mordechai Schmutter

So I don’t know if this is good news or not, but scientists at MIT have recently created what they’re calling ‘the world’s most difficult tongue twister.”

Yeah, there’s not a whole lot to do in Massachusetts.

To most of us, tongue twisters seem like an innocent waste of time. Do we really have to practice saying these phrases? In my day-to-day life, when am I ever going to have to say the phrase, “Brad’s big black bath brush broke!” ten times fast? Give Brad some privacy.

So some people refuse to participate in tongue twisters. And then there are people like my wife, who will agree to say them, but then they’ll pause after each time they say the line. So they’re not saying it ten times fast; they’re saying it one time fast, ten times in a row.

But it turns out there is a scientific purpose to these things. According to the scientists involved in the study, tongue twisters can help us shed light on the brain’s speech-planning process.

“When things go wrong,” a spokesperson said, “that can tell you something about how the typical, error-free operation should go.”

To conduct the study, researchers called in various subjects and had them read different lines. And the line the researchers ultimately put together that apparently got the volunteers to give up and stop speaking altogether was, “Pad kid poured curd pulled cold.” Say that ten times fast.


I don’t know; the phrase makes absolutely no sense. What’s a “pad kid”? A kid who sells small notebooks? Or a kid who always walks around with small notebooks, like the people at MIT? I don’t know. I can’t think of a single instance in real life where you’d ever have to say that. Is that fair? Can you just string together words that don’t make sense and say, “No one can say this”? No one wants to say this; everyone stopped talking.

“Yeah! See?”

On the other hand, if you think about it, how much sense do the other tongue twisters make? Let’s take one of the most famous ones:

“She sells seashells by the seashore.”

Why is she selling seashells at the seashore? That’s not great business sense. Isn’t that like selling ice to Eskimos? Are there couples walking along the shore going, “Well, we need seashells, but I don’t feel like looking for them. Oh, look, there’s a sheasell shtand!”

“Seashell stand.”

“What did I say?”

Personally, I think it’s a front for some sort of illegal operation. But there could be other answers.

For example, maybe tourists will buy anything. Or maybe she found that this way, she could charge less, thanks to lower overhead and shipping costs. For the price that you’d normally pay for one seashell, you could go home with ten. Or maybe there are people out there who aren’t just in the market for one or two seashells. That’s not what’s keeping her afloat, so to speak. It’s the people who are looking to buy a ton of seashells—like maybe they’re making a themed shevaberachos or mishloachmanos and they need lots of shells on a deadline. So they go to the shore, and they’re like, “Oh, my goodness! We’re never going to find enough in time!” So her stand is right there. Where else should she be?

But we can ask questions on most of the other tongue twisters too. This one, for example:

“If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?”

That depends. How many peppers are in a peck?

“That’s what I’m asking you!”

Oh. Frankly, I always thought it was a pack of pickled peppers. I didn’t know “peck” was a word. I never had a recipe call for “one peck of peppers, pickled.” What was he making?

So I looked it up. Apparently, a peck is “a unit of dry measure, equal to about 2 gallons. It’s also equal to a quarter of a bushel.” (A bushel is a small bush.)

So as I see it, he probably came home, and Mrs. Piper was like, “I said a pack of pickled peppers! What am I going to do with 2 gallons of peppers?”

But a lot of people have difficulty with this tongue twister—not because it’s hard to say, but because generally, when you’re picking peppers, they’re not pickled yet. Most people tend to pickle their vegetables after they’re picked. It’s much more efficient that way.

I personally don’t think this is an issue, though, because no one said he was picking them from the ground. Maybe they’re already pickled, in a jar, and he walks into the pickle store, and they say, “Well, we have pickled cucumbers, pickled peppers, pickled herring… What’ll it be?” and he picks pickled peppers. Because the last time he came home with two gallons of pickled herring, his wife went to her parents for a week.

Here’s another:

“A tutor who tutored the flute tried to tutor two tooters to toot. Said the two to the tooter, ‘Is it harder to toot, or to tutor two tooters to toot?’”

Well, obviously, it’s harder to tutor two tooters to toot, because if you’re tutoring, you still have to toot, but with a constant stream of students interrupting with genius questions that you obviously can’t answer while you’re tooting, just because they want to waste time until you have to leave. I can relate. I’m a high-school English teacher.

But questions or not, at least those sentences make some sort of grammatical sense. As opposed to “Pad kid poured curd pulled cold.”

But it turns out, according to Dr. Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, who headed the study, that the fact that the sentence makes no sense actually makes it harder to say. Sentences are easier if you can visualize them happening.

But theory or not, she’s still wrong. There are much harder tongue twisters out there. For example, “Dr. Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel.”

How hard is her line, really? “Pad kid poured curd pulled cold pad kid poured curd pulled cold pad kid poured curd pulled cold.”

Okay, I’ll admit—I copy-pasted back there. But even a slight variation on her line would make it harder: “Pad kid curd poured pulled cold.” I could barely even read that, and I’m the one who typed it.

And that’s not the only harder one. There are still others. Each one is harder than the newly developed one, and each one has its own nonsensical quirks that just invite problems:

• “Betty bought some bitter butter that made her batter bitter. So she bought some better butter that made her batter better.” (How much butter is in Betty’s batter at this point? Is Betty dead?)

• “Can you can a canned can into an uncanned can like a canner can can a canned can into an uncanned can?” (How can you can a canned can? If the can is canned, then it’s already in a can. And if you’re referring to the can it’s in, then that can is uncanned. And besides, canning a can into an uncanned can is definitely easier than canning a can into a canned can. Which reminds me—Shoprite is having a sale this month. And why are we canning whole cans into other cans anyway? How long do we need to preserve our peas and carrots? “That’s enough! I don’t think it’s going to escape!”)

• “If Stu chews shoes, should Stu choose the shoes he chews?” (I don’t know. It sounds like Stu has an eating disorder.)

• “A box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits, and a biscuit mixer.” (It sounds like someone’s throwing a party for his dog. Or for Stu.)

• “If you’re going to begin to toboggan, don’t buy too big a toboggan. Too big a toboggan is too big a toboggan to buy to begin to toboggan.” (You also have to be able to fit it into your car. That’s not always something people think about until they get out to the parking lot.)

• “She had shoulder surgery.” (Maybe she bought too big a toboggan.)

And anyway, the most difficult tongue twister, in my opinion, is “Irish wristwatch.” I can’t even say that once.

I’m going to try it on my wife.

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.


Please ShareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg thisEmail this to someonePrint this page