Linguistics

Guide to Tongue Twisters and Hard to Pronounce Words

Suppose you’ve dutifully learned your letters, trained your ears, and are feeling pretty confident about your pronunciation skills.

Then you open up some book or website and find hard to pronounce words like Streichholzschächtelchen (little match box) or Eisenbahnknotenpunkt-hinundherschieber (Railroad switch operator) or the Czech vowel-less masterpiece čtvrthrst (a quarter of a handful). How do you get that many sounds into your mouth at once?

There’s a trick to pronouncing hard to pronounce words, and it comes out of the world of classical singing.

When you’re singing in a foreign language, you have two main jobs: you need to sound good, and you need to articulate your text clearly. Not everyone succeeds at both of these jobs equally. But at least in theory, that’s what you’re going for, and you have to do it whether you’re singing Italian (relatively friendly to the tongue) or Czech (not).

Back-Chaining to the Rescue

To trick to getting these sounds comfortably in your mouth is to go backwards. Let’s try Russian’s вздремну́ла (napped, pronounced vzdrimnula). You can probably pronounce all of the individual sounds of this word – v, z, d, r, i, m, n, u, l, a – but you might have a hard time sticking them all together at once. Vzdr, in particular, doesn’t quite roll off of the tongue on its own.

So we’ll go backwards. While vzdrimnula might be too hard, nula isn’t. Now add an m.

m…nula…mnula.
i…mnula…imnula.
r…imnula…rimnula.
d…rimnula…drimnula.
z…drimnula…zdrimnula.
v…zdrimnula…vzdrimnula.

I’ve made a little recording of this process:

For your amusement, I’m also including a recording of my back-chaining Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (The beef labeling supervision duties delegation law), one of German’s 1999 Words of the Year.

ge-setz
gungs-gesetz
tra-gungsgesetz
ber-tragungsgesetz
ü-bertragungsgesetz
ben-übertragungsgesetz
ga-benübertragungsgesetz
auf-gabenübertragungsgesetz
ungs-aufgabenübertragungsgesetz
(At this point, I’m going to start rehearsing the beginning a little before getting to the end)
wach-ungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
über-wachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
ungs-überwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
tier-ungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
tiket-tierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
e-tikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
fleisch-etikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
Rind-fleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz
das Rind-fleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

 
Back chaining

That’s back-chaining, and you can use it to make short work of the longest, trickiest words in any language (and tongue twisters, for that matter. Try Czech’s Strč prst skrz krk.)

Why backwards? Basically, because in practice, it seems to work much better than the other direction

Why backwards? Basically, because in practice, it seems to work much better than the other direction (v…z, vz…d, vzd…r gets you in trouble pretty quickly). It also makes sense from a muscle-memory standpoint. If you know how to say rimnula, you’re not going to suddenly forget how to say that when you say d…rimnula. Your tongue is getting better and better at reaching the end of a word. It won’t get lost on the way, even when you add complications to the front of the word.

[Amusing discovery of the day: If you ask someone on Forvo.com to record a word like  Eisenbahnknotenpunkthinundherschieber, they will send you an email saying “no.” You’ll then discover that Forvo.com has a 2.5 second cap on their recordings.]

That’s it! If you have questions or suggestions, post in the comments section below. Like what you see? Subscribe to site updates! [wysija_form id=”1″]

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