Project Tongue Twister

So, what is a tongue twister?

In order to get the most from this section of our site, we recommend that you first spend some time using the IPA Highlighting feature attached to each tongue twister on the page for English tongue twisters. This is one tool that has been fully developed and may help the visual learners among us better understand some of our analysis. Other tools and sections of this site, such as the tongue twister pages listed for other languages, are still currently undergoing development.

After spending some time looking at the structure of tongue twisters and collecting data from online sources and speakers, we have noticed three general categories of factors which seem to make tongue twisters difficult to produce:

Click one of the above factors to jump to its explanation below!


Repetition of the same or similar sounds in a sentence seems to be the defining feature of tongue twisters. The variety of sounds that humans can produce in speech is quite amazing considering that there really isn't that much space in a person's mouth. In fact, a brief experiment between this writer's roommates involving a cup of water and a graduated cylinder reveals that most people can hold 80-120 ml of fluid in their mouths, a little less volume than the size of a standard Juicy Juice juice box. In addition, it requires a considerable amount of effort to coordinate precise movements of the tongue, jaw, pharynx, glottis, and other parts of the body involved with speech production in order to produce sounds that make sense to people. It is difficult enough to orchestrate these movements in normal speech; requiring the speech-producing mechanisms of the body to make tiny adjustments between sounds that have similar places and manners of articulation only makes things more difficult.

Proximity of Sounds:

Not only does the proximity of similar sounds in the words of a tongue twister contribute to a phrase's “tongue-twistedness”, the proximity of the sounds within the entire utterance also matters.

It seems as though proximity and repetition are the two most important aspects of an utterance when considering it as a tongue twister. When you think about it, the phrases in common tongue twisters are not actually that common in everyday life. How many scenarios can you imagine in real life where you would need to use a sentence like, “She sells sea shells?” Difficult utterances like this are not very common in everyday speech.

Tongue twisters are tongue twisters because they use rare sounds or arrangements; difficult sounds are avoided in everyday speech because o time!

Mental Processing of Speaker:

No, in saying that a person's mental capabilities contribute to the production of a tongue twister we do not mean that people who struggle to say tongue twisters are in any way less intelligent or worthy of human love than people who have no trouble at all saying the world's hardest tongue twister (if such people exist). What we mean by this is that a person's abilities to read, speak, listen, and recall information contribute to the problems they may encounter when trying to say a tongue twister.

Reading is important because although we have chosen 15 of the most popular tongue twisters from each language featured on our site, the method through which we compiled a corpus of tongue twisters and asked our participants to give us recordings was through reading tongue twisters off a computer screen or a sheet of paper. Unless we are able to recall a tongue twister from memory, unusual considering the often strange arrangement of sounds in a tongue twister, we mostly have to begin processing tongue twisters by reading them. People who have difficulty with reading or read slowly may certainly experience greater difficulty with tongue twisters than those who are more fluent in their abilities.

For obvious reasons, a person's speaking ability is an essential part of producing a tongue twister. No matter how you come across a tongue twister—be it through reading or simply hearing someone else speak it—in order to say the tongue twister, you have to be able to say the tongue twister. An individual's natural pace, rhythm, speech impediments or variations, and ways of producing sounds in speech can all have a natural influence on everything they say. This is why many scholars believe tongue twisters have a practical application in preschool and kindergarten settings with younger children who are beginning to have greater control of their spoken language. The belief is that in working through the difficulties of a tongue twister, children can supposedly gain more control over their pronunciation and sound production. Have you ever wondered why there aren't very many tongue twisters that contain expletive language? It may be because tongue twisters are created for educating young children.

Listening is another thing that can trip people up when they're attempting to say a tongue twister. Our minds already have the difficult task of translating the words we see on a page or the thoughts we have in our heads into intelligible speech sounds. The strange and unusual arrangement of sounds in tongue twisters only adds to the pandemonium. Perhaps we pay closer attention to the sounds we produce during tongue twisters because we are more aware of how unusual they are, but for whatever reason it seems as though people pay closer attention to errors they make when saying tongue twisters than they do when making errors in normal speech.