There’s this poem, which you can read comfortably but trying to read which aloud is torture:
I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.
Alternative last verse:
A dreadful language? Why, man alive!
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five.
So this poem is about spelling not corresponding to pronunciation and vice-versa. Wikipedia cites it as “From a letter published in the London Sunday Times in 1965 [...] The author was only listed by T.S.W.”, but it’s at least as old as 1961, possibly much older.
The other poem is called The Chaos, and it’s by the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité, illustrating how impossible it is to deduce pronunciation from spelling. It makes you doubt the pronunciation of many words you think you know. :-) He first published it in 1920, with 164 lines, and revised it many times until his death in 1946 (274 lines). It’s quite painful to read, so skim when it gets unbearable and save the rest for another sitting. Prof. David Madore has a version here, with the first few verses in IPA for AmE and BrE. What follows is a random excerpt only!
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;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
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: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.
Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
Pronunciation—think of Psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
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 rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?
Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!
All of which reminds me of the following story about reading aloud. In the 4th century, where apparently it was common practice for everyone to read aloud, St. Augustine encountered a man (Bishop Ambrose) who read silently! He didn’t even move his lips! You couldn’t hear his voice while reading even if you stood very close to him! As Augustine reports (and it’s a matter of debate whether in amazement or in distaste):
When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.
It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud – a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong. […]
Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument.
In order to read aloud well, especially when a text is written without breaks between words (as was classical practice), it seems important to possess the gift to read ahead simultaneously. Silent reading is a necessary adjunct to the kind of reading aloud for sound and sense Nietzsche admired. What shocked Augustine was that Ambrose read silently in front of visitors and refused to share his reading matter, and his thoughts, with them. But Augustine was perfectly capable of silent reading, and describes a key moment in his conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend.
Finally, if I may rant again about spelling pronunciation: the character ~ is written “tilde”, but I wish people would stop calling it “till-day” or “tilled”! It is pronounced “til-duh”, as in the Australian ballad: “Waltzing Ma~, Waltzing Ma~…” or the name of the actress ~ Swinton (literally?)
TODO: Read about “the very notion of silent, individualized reading is scarcely known prior to the advent of the printing press (Goody and Watt: 42)” That’s Goody, Jack, and Watt, Ian, 1968, “The Consequences of Literacy.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies, edited by Jack Goody, pp. 27-68. Cambridge University Press. This is from Thomas Coburn, “Scripture” in India: Towards a Typology of the Word in Hindu Life, p.437. He goes on:
there has never been a happy marriage between the holy words of India, composed and transmitted orally, and the writing process. Particularly in contrast with, say, China, scribes in India have been of low social standing (Lancaster: 224-25), and the very act of writing was held to be ritually polluting: a late “Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka (5.5.3) states that a pupil should not recite the Veda after he has eaten meat, seen blood or a dead body, had intercourse or engaged in writing” (Staal, 1979:122-23). The profoundly spoken character of India’s holy words is a matter on which we will reflect below, but for the moment it will suffice to note that we should not be misled by the fact that most of these words have eventually found their way onto the written or printed page. This is not their primary home, and Staal is not simply being mischievous in discerning a symbolic significance to the fact that Indian books “still tend to fall apart” (1979:123).