Being multilingual

Why reading aloud is important: a challenge with English

In addition to my post about the importance of reading aloud, I would like to make an example for English. Every non-native speaker will struggle with the pronunciation of English and sooner or later will understand that English is not an easy language. Maybe the grammar is easier than in other languages – it obviously depends on which other languages you already know – but the pronunciation is a challenge for us and apparently for some English native speakers too: they say that “if you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world”. – I still struggle with some (better: several) words and the rhyme helped me several times…

This is a poem the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), known as “Charivarius”, published in his book about the English pronunciation “Drop Your Foreign Accent: Engelsche uitspraakoefeningen” in 1920 with the title “Chaos” (later “The Chaos”). The poem had a length of 292 verses when Trenité died in 1944 and more were added later. It now contains 800 of the worst irregularities of English pronunciation.

English: pronunciation phonogram

English: pronunciation phonogram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenite’ a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946


Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing.
Thames, examining, combining
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.
From “desire”: desirable–admirable from “admire.”
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.
Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.
Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone. Balmoral.
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,
Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.
Scene, Melpomene, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with “darky.”
Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s O.K.,
When you say correctly: croquet.
Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive, and live,
Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police, and lice.
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label,
Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.
Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous, clamour
And enamour rime with hammer.
Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger.
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.
Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.
And then: singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual.
Seat, sweat; chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rime with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific,
Tour, but our and succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria,
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.
Say aver, but ever, fever.
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess–it is not safe:
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.
Heron, granary, canary,
Crevice and device, and eyrie,
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,
Ear but earn, and wear and bear
Do not rime with here, but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation–think of psyche–!
Is a paling, stout and spikey,
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing “groats” and saying “grits”?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict, and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with “enough”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”
My advice is–give it up!


And if you don’t want to give up, here’s a teacher reading it for (or with?) you.

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4 replies »

  1. FANTASTICO MIA BELLA! l’aggiungo alla mia cartellina intitolata Weird English.

    E pensa che in Italia ci si preoccupava di insegnare ai bambini la differenza scritta fra Giulio e luglio e quante vocali ci fossero per davvero in aiuola – dato che la gente fine e soave diceva ancora ‘aiola’ ai miei tempi… e poi come cade l’accento fra àncora e ancóra …. tre cosettine… ne sai altre ? (a parte l’opera…) Bellissima pagina!

    • Grazie Vera! Si, ce ne sono tante altre in Italiano per l’accento sulla terzultima sillaba (cfr. parole sdrucciole), specie nei toponimi Ancóna, Módena, Táranto etc. – Giulio e luglio: si, mi ricordo!
      Insenando l’italiano a stranieri, alcuni facevano fatica con parole come dàrsena, fortúito, circúito, ímpari (vs. pári), móllica o concíme etc. E poi c’è la pronuncia delle doppie (o scempie) nelle diverse regioni d’Italia. Già soltanto trovare il livello standard italiano è difficile (vedi gli studi di Lepschy, Castellani, Migliorini etc. sull’argomento). – Un articolo interessante sulla differenza nella pronuncia, scritto dal mio ex-capo (Loporcaro): Bertinetto, Pier Marco & Loporcaro, Michele (2005), The sound pattern of standard Italian, as compared with the varieties spoken in Florence, Milan and Rome, «Journal of the International Phonetic Association» 35, 2, pp. 131-151.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I totally agree. People underestimate how difficult English can be for foreigners. I asked some English native speakers to read this poem and so far, only one – an English teacher – managed to read it without hesitating on any of the words (maybe she knew this poem already?).
    I love to challenge myself in the languages I speak.

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