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SOUNDS ODD #22 by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
There's Many A Slip 'Twixt
The Tongue And The Lips
January 15, 2014
Voice actors are often encouraged to use tongue twisters as warm-up exercises before performing. For most of us, it’s easier to spend a few minutes practicing crisp articulation with a few well-worn phrases before delivering a script, than it is to attempt to launch straight into precise annunciation without them.   

Plus, many tongue twisters are just plain fun!  

I was taught to practice tongue twisters this way:  

1) Strive to pronounce the words as precisely as possible
2) Speak as slowly as necessary until fluency is achieved
3) Then, increase speed and repetitions while retaining precision  


The "twist” in tongue twisters appears to be caused by one of two factors (or possibly both at once):  

1) How the brain takes in information, and/or
2) How the mouth spits information out again  

Stuttering is a speech malfunction closely linked to mistakes in tongue twisters. With both problems, the brain seems to temporarily lose control and coordination of the mouth. 

Chronic stuttering afflicts approximately 1% of the adult population, and most sufferers are men (by a factor of four male stutters to every one female stutterer).   


Most of us take the complex timing and syncopation needed to speak language for granted. But for stutterers, brain regions talk to each other in unexpected ways, and that creates a garbled result.   

A 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that connectivity within and between the cerebrum and cerebellum differed by gender. This research built on a 2007 study from the University of California San Francisco that discovered that differences in neural connectivity in the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain accounted for male stutterers’ woes, while female stutterers had bilateral neural connectivity issues between left and right cerebral hemispheres.

(Does this mean male stutterers are in their right minds while female stutterers are scatter-brained? Let’s not go there…) 


A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) devised experiments to study the ways our brains process language by developing a truly diabolical tongue twister. 

Led by psychologist Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel (try repeating that name multiple times, quickly), the team discovered that it could induce double onsets (a linguistic term for twists and stuttering) with lists of words and sound inversions.   

In other words, tongue twisters. 

Their most successful twist?  
pad kid poured curd pulled cod  
Okay - whatever that means!  But meaning is not the point here. Their point was to reliably evoke a pattern of slips that could be studied in a variety of subjects.  

The MIT scientists are already working on the next phase of their research, including putting tiny transducers on peoples’ tongues in order to measure their articulation. (Can you say "Ow” ?!)


All kidding aside, neurological research into speech pathology holds promise for stroke victims and others suffering from speech disorders. The more we know about what’s actually happening in the brain during garbled speech, the more precise we can be about addressing solutions.

Using brain scans, a 2012 study from China found that just one week of speech therapy can help rewire the brain and reduce stuttering.

A nice plot twist, no? So keep articulating, even if that pad kid pouring curd pulled cod makes no sense. 

And just for fun, share a few of your favorite tongue twisters here, in the COMMENTS below.  We’d love to hear from you.    

For more on linguistic neurological research, please see: Tongue Twister Reveals Quirky Brain Functions and MIT Researchers Say They Have Created The Trickiest Tongue Twister To Date.

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


Earlier Sounds Odd Columns:

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Comments (6)
Debbie Irwin
1/19/2014 at 11:37 AM
Oh, and one more fun YouTube video, thanks to Pinky and the Brain,
(and my daughter who pointed it out to me):
Debbie Irwin
1/19/2014 at 11:35 AM
Love these!! Thanks for sharing.
I practice mine (sotto voce) on the NYC subway-- making me look no crazier than anyone else. ;-)

Here are a few more:
Most people prefer preshrunk sheets
Mrs. Smiths fish sauce shop
Which wrist watch is a Swiss witch's watch
Polished brass and black glass
Unique NY
A box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits and biscuit mixer
The blob brought a black backed bath brushback
Rich Owenlappers
1/15/2014 at 3:04 PM
Then there is always the Jack Webb and Johnny Carson Clean Copper Clappers Caper; check it out on YouTube:
Dan Friedman
1/15/2014 at 2:48 PM
Interesting stuff Elizabeth! One of my favorite books of all time is Fox In Socks. ;-)
Karyn O'Bryant
1/15/2014 at 1:34 PM
I love this! Thanks, Elizabeth. And Roxanne's tongue twister is hilarious.
Here's one of the tongue twisters I do every day:

Topeka Topeka Topeka
Bodega Bodega Bodega
Topeka Bodega Topeka Bodega Topeka Bodega

Let's not forget:

red leather yellow leather lavender leather

particularly and similarly and regularly
Roxanne Coyne
1/15/2014 at 10:12 AM
Very interesting! My son stuttered as a young child and it was very frightening. Here's my fave tongue twister. Careful, now....

I'm a mother pheasant plucker, I pluck mother pheasants.
I'm the most pleasant mother pheasant plucker to ever pluck a mother pheasant.
I'm not the pheasant plucker I'm the pheasant plucker's wife, I've been plucking mother pheasants my whole pheasant plucking life.
I'm not the pheasant plucker I'm the pheasant plucker's mate, I'm only plucking pheasants 'cause the pheasant plucker's late.

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