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Yes indeed, today is International Tongue Twister Day, and in celebration I thought I should share the above twister deluxe – apparently rated the toughest of all tongue twisters.

Actually tongue twisters are very interesting phenomena. Why do certain combinations of words cause our tongues to tie up in knots? And more fundamentally – is it actually our tongues that get confused, or do we get stuck in the brain even before we get to verbalise the twister?

The very term ‘tongue twister’ blames the tongue for getting tied in a knot over certain word combinations, when it may in fact be the brain that stumbles first.
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Reading a sentence out loud involves an amazingly complex set of actions. Firstly, the brain has to make sense of the letters on the page and comprehend the sounds that are to be produced. Then it has to fire off signals to various parts of the body in order to create the actual sounds – the diaphragm has to move to move air and create the correct pressure to articulate the sounds; the vocal chords have to relax and/or contract; the lips have to pull into different shapes; and then of course the tongue has to set off on a series of extremely complex and yet very precise movements. While the diaphragm, vocal chords and lips can shape the varying blocks of sound needed to speak, the lips are responsible for all the finer details, rolling, bending, clicking and sliding to turn the sounds from rough slabs into precise shapes.

So where do things go wrong when we hit a tongue twister?

A number of studies indicate it may be the brain that stumbles before the words even reach the tongue. In a 1982 study by Ralph and Lyn Haber from the University of Illinois, a group of adult test subjects were asked to silently read different sections of text, some containing tongue twisters, and some not. They found that it took people significantly longer to read through the tongue twisters, indicating that our difficulty articulating these specific sections of speech may be more complex than merely being a case of the tongue not being able to handle the gymnastics it has to perform. It all has to do with phonology. Even when we read silently, we still arrange letters into phonemes, or ‘sound packages’, and rapidly switching between specific phonemes may cause problems even at the conceptual level.

The above result is confirmed by a later study by Keller, Carpenter and Just of Carnegie Mellon University, who studied the brain activity of test subjects while they silently read texts containing tongue twisters. It was found that people not only took longer to read through the tongue twisters, but there were also increased levels of activity in a number of language-related cortical areas. This confirms that it is the brain that is already having a hard time sorting out specific phoneme combinations.

Having said that, there are certain phoneme combinations that, physically, causes the tongue some real difficulty. This includes rapidly reversing the order of sounds, like the ‘s’ and ‘sh’ in “She sells seashells by the seashore” – the tongue’s muscle memory wants to repeat the sounds in the same order. Switching between single and double sounds is another challenge – the ‘s’ and ‘sh’ above, or the ‘b’ and ‘bl’ in “A big black bug bit a big black bear, made the big black bear bleed blood.” Things also go pear-shaped when we are forced to quickly make major changes to the shape and position of the tongue and lips, like rapidly repeating “toy boat” – the ‘oy’ part lifts the middle of your tongue to the top of your palate and pulls the lips into a rounded shape, and then the ‘b’ makes the tongue drop back to the mouth floor and the lips has to quickly close and open to make the air ‘pop’ out of your mouth. Doing this repeatedly gets the muscles all tied up.

Perhaps the problem is that the brain, when reading a tongue twister, already starts thinking about the trouble it is going to face to get the tongue to do what it is supposed to, and this causes it to get stuck. Whatever the case – whether it’s a tongue twister or really a brain twister, or a brain-tongue combination twister, today is the day to have fun with these crazy little phonetic constructs – just don’t try and say “I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit; and on the slitted sheet I sit” too loudly in public!