Monday, June 22, 2015

Trippingly on the Tongue

An article in London’s Independent purported to list the ten most difficult words to pronounce in English, based upon a survey conducted in the social medium Reddit. Some of the listed words obviously are difficult only because of the ignorance of the speaker. If you know the anomalies of the orthography in colonel, choir, otorhinolaryngologist, and Worcestershire, for example, they are no problem to pronounce.

Others, however, are genuinely difficult to say, even for educated speakers. Some of them appear in tough tongue-twisters to prove it. Although only fifth on the Independent’s list, my nominee for the toughest is isthmus. Try saying “Six thick isthmus thistle sticks.” Another toughie is sixth, as in the “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

Among the other most difficult ones are rural (“A rural juror in a brewery robbery case”) and anemone (“A minimum enema for many an enemy anemone”).

An interesting sidelight is the word squirrel, which gives particular difficulty to German-speakers and was used as a shibboleth to detect them in World War II.  Oddly enough, the German word for squirrel, Eichhörnchen, was used by Germans to detect English-speakers.

Most Americans tend to rhyme squirrel with Pearl, although some favor the British style, which sounds more like Cyril. To reinforce this pronunciation the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has adapted a well-known limerick, which, despite the Bard’s attempt to make it fit for polite consumption, remains a trifle ithyphallic. Sensitive readers are cautioned. 
        There once was a young man named Cyril, 
        Who had an affair with a squirrel, 
                 And it made Cyril smile 
                 For quite a long while-- 
        Just as long as the squirrel was virile.

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