The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Reading aloud

with 14 comments

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!

There’s another version here. More poems here.

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.

(Might want to take a look at this chapter from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.)
But James Fenton disagrees: see The Guardian, Saturday 29 July 2006:

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).

Written by S

Fri, 2009-05-29 at 23:14:07

Posted in language

Tagged with

14 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. ಭಾಷೆಯ ಲಿಪಿ ಅಕ್ಷರಗಳ ಮೇಲೆ ಆಧಾರಿತವಾಗಿದ್ದರೆ ಈ ಕಷ್ಟ ಬೇಕಾಗಿಲ್ವೇ !

    German does pretty good in this context, though.

    ಬಹಳ ಮಜವಾಗಿತ್ತು ವೋದುಕ್ಕೆ .


    Sun, 2009-05-31 at 08:51:18

    • ಧನ್ಯವಾದಗಳು :)

      It would be impossible to come up with a phonetic spelling for English that would concur with its pronunciation by, say, American, English, Australian and Irish speakers. Why, it would be hard even to fit Tamil and Malayalam speakers. :)

      Actually, I quite like the fact that in English spelling and pronunciation are so weakly linked; it makes the word a higher level of abstraction, with its spelling and pronunciation only representations, unlike languages where there are no homophones or homonyms (“homographs” if you prefer). Yes, it’s a pain sometimes that they’re not “वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ” :), but I don’t think it’s such a big deal.

      Actually, I think that English orthography makes it easier to read than certain other languages. This is possibly a controversial statement so I don’t want to make it without giving it enough thought, but vaguely, it’s something like this: there is really no reason to assume that all languages are equally readable. Unlike Indian (abugida) scripts, English’s alphabetic writing doesn’t consider often-crucial vowels as second-class citizens, all its redundancy make the decoding require less processing (more error-correction), and hundreds of years of a print culture have evolved the orthography… (I don’t claim Blackletter is very readable). Maybe I’m just whining because I take longer reading Kannada and Devanagari :P, but for some observations on how culture decides typography and all that, you might like skimming through this rant I discovered, called “Notes on the externals of Indian Books”, written as a preface by Charles Rockwell Lanman, Sanskrit scholar and editor of the Harvard Oriental Series: (Remember, it was written in 1908 so you should allow for some objectionable attitudes and words :p)

      [If this is true, then I’d guess some languages are possibly even more readable than English, and I have absolutely no intuition about ideographic/logographic writing.]


      Sun, 2009-05-31 at 14:28:42

      • I think the disparities between English accents is a result of the disconnect between the orthography and the pronunciation. The point of your extracts in the article above was to showcase the difference between these two, not between orthography and readability, yes?

        (Of course, it does not follow that no dialects will arise with a phonetic script- Swiss German is nearly incomprehensible to most German speakers.
        Err, I’m off on a ‘A=>B, ~B=>~A’ rant again, sorry.)

        I would prefer a one-one mapping between the (abstract) word and the (written) word, but perhaps that’s just me. :)

        I have trouble reading Kannada too; I always attributed this (perhaps correctly) to lack of formal training in my mother tongue. It never occurred to me that this might be because of the absence of redundancy and because I’m used to lazing over letters.

        And yeah, ideographic writing confounds me. The Kanji to English translation in ‘scanlated‘ Manga is my only exposure to this, but I doubt it makes sense to read Japanese literature (classic or modern) without being steeped in Japanese culture.

        Thanks for the link!


        Sun, 2009-05-31 at 16:47:13

        • Yes, the point of the original poems was the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation, but since you mentioned both ಲಿಪಿ and ಅಕ್ಷರಗಳು, I meandered into my orthography musings, sorry :) (Spelling, letter shapes, punctuation, and all that… I was once chided by a Kannada teacher for using semicolons (because apparently they didn’t exist); I’ve never stopped ranting about it. :P Also, to add to the earlier comments: we know that in English WRITING IN ALL CAPS makes text less readable, so why should we assume that a script without case is equally readable? I wish someone would scientifically measure readability… Anyway, the loose connection back to the original point is that I think a phonetic spelling for English (which many suggest as a “solution” to this “problem”) would be a bad thing, because it would invariably make it less readable.)

          I find it implausible that differences among dialects have much, if anything, to do with spelling. Almost all native speakers learn to speak well before they learn to read or write. A different writing system shouldn’t affect… (ok, I see holes in this argument; maybe we should ask a linguist.) Anyway, as you observed, dialects are present in languages with a phonetic spelling (even in Sanskrit, the “perfected” language: how exactly is ऋ pronounced?). Also, English’s looseness is its strength and a reason for its profligacy: it seems that a too-close adherence to the written form not only results in a less adaptive language but also delegitimises (:p) dialects that diverge from it, just as some of our own Kannada and Tamil dialects are looked down upon. Or… the non-phonetic spelling in English is sometimes the only thing that makes us mutually intelligible; we should be grateful for it :)


          Mon, 2009-06-01 at 12:09:51

  2. […] the tongue twister to speak aloud. Shreevatsa has another poem in the article as well. Be sure to check it […]

  3. Nice post. I read this on Futility Closet sometime ago:

    This sentence is unwritable:

    There are three ways to spell /tu/.

    This sentence is unsayable:

    There are three ways to pronounce “slough.”

    The TODO bit is interesting too, do post here if you find some updates.


    Mon, 2009-10-12 at 16:38:29

    • That’s why we have ways to represent sound in writing (IPA, etc.) and spelling in speech (names of letters, etc.).

      This raises a question: are representations of sound (in writing) or of spelling (in speech) any less “real” words than words that are representations of other things? They are not more concrete or more abstract, nor are they the only words that are representations of representations. So in what sense are the sentences unwritable or unsayable? :-)


      Sun, 2009-10-18 at 22:52:05

  4. There’s far too much (very nice) information here to write just one comment, so I’ll do it in parts.

    Before anything, the वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ reference – ^:-)^ ! ^:-)^ !! I can’t say more! [Desperate lack of emoticons for ‘kneeling’ and ‘Respect!’]

    Now, the meat of this comment, the ऋ. So far as I see it, there are two reasons why it exists.

    1. I personally love this definition of the vowels: A vowel is a sound that can be held for a period of time. You can’t ‘hold’ the sound of ‘k’ or ‘p’ for long, they are intrinsically spike-like in time. Contrast with ‘aaaaaaa’ and ‘iiiiii’ and every other vowel to verify.

    This definition of vowels suggests that ऋ should be trilled, like an ‘rrrrrrrr’. There are two facts which validate this:
    1.1. This fits with the pattern of the यण् sandhi, which maps {i, u, r, lr} + {a} to {ya, va, ra, la}. Consider the question of how to pronounce ‘ऋषि’. Conventional teaching suggests something that sounds like ‘Ri-shi’, but this definitions suggests it should be more like ‘rr-shi’. Let’s test with a यण् . शिष्ट + ऋषि = शिष्टर्षि by definition. It is clear that the trill makes a much more natural transition to the ‘ar’ than a ‘ri’ does.

    1.2. The existence of a ऌ (pronounced ‘llllll’) vowel in Vedic sanskrit. This again is consistent with the ‘holdability’ criterion and the यण् test.

    2. A trill ‘r’ is necessary for a one-maatra consonant in poetry. Let’s consider pair, सुव्रत (‘tractable, like a cow’) and सुवृत. (‘well filled’). Consider [*] this anushtup verse:

    सा बभूव च सुव्रता (‘And she also became tractable’)
    (what any husband dreams of)

    contrasted with this one:

    सा बभूव च सुवृता (‘And she also became well-filled’)
    (what every husband finally gets)

    The second one is metrically wrong – try singing/chanting it. The first is pronounced like ‘..suvv-rataa’ (some staying on the v) and the second ‘su-vr-ta’ (no staying). We can easily construct a symmetric example where the ऋ use is right.

    This is just my theory, but I think it is strong enough. Also, recently, I heard that the Karnataka Government ordered the dropping of ಋ, ಕ್ಷ and ಜ್ಞ್ಯ. I find the tampering with the ಋ appalling, but don’t yet know why the ಕ್ಷ and ಜ್ಞ್ಯ are necessary. An initial guess is that the combination of k+S and g+Ny is unique, and that there’s no other x such that x+S or x+Ny is allowed. It seems probable, but I need more evidence.

    [*] – The only word I could find with common-enough meanings which had both a ‘ra’ and the ‘rr’ variations was this one. I then hacked together an anushtup line with this placed at the critical 6th syllable :)


    Wed, 2009-10-14 at 01:14:46

    • Indeed… ऋ is not pronounced like “ri” as in Hindi, for the simple reason that it’s pronounced closer to “ru” in Kannada, Marathi etc. :-) And neither of them can be right, because “ri” or “ru” would be written रि or रु. It’s a vowel.

      The thing about the Karnataka Government is strange — firstly, is the government in charge of deciding?! (And did they remove ಋ itself, not just ೠ? Bizarre… how would we write “ಕೃಷ್ಣ” etc.?) I’ve always supposed the “ಕ್ಷ, ತ್ರ, ಜ್ಞ” occasionally found at the end of the alphabet is just some leftover idiocy; there’s no sensible reason for it. Maybe your approach of thinking there must be a reason is the better one. :-)


      Sun, 2009-10-18 at 23:13:31

      • FWIW, I asked a friend studying Sanskrit what, if anything, is special to क्ष त्र ज्ञ, but he also has no idea, and thinks they’re perfectly normal conjuncts. क्ष and ज्ञ might have been included in modern (post-writing/(post-printing?)) alphabet lists just to help learners — it’s hard to decompose them and deduce what pairs of letters they are conjuncts of — but that neither explains the perfectly simple त्र, nor does it explain why languages other than Sanskrit, like Kannada and Telugu, saw fit to include these at the end of their alphabet lists (perhaps in imitation of Sanskrit?).


        Thu, 2009-10-22 at 08:23:29

        • I thought of the special-ligature idea too, but you’re right, the त्र kills it. We’d have to include द्य, ह्म and whole lot of others. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember having the त्र in the Sanskrit alphabet I studied, but it was there in the Kannada alphabet. That by itself shows it’s quite nonstandard (or that I was not paying attention :-) )


          Wed, 2009-11-04 at 12:28:18

  5. I thought this might be of relevance. Two things:

    1. My Sanskrit teacher here is an American, and doesn’t know Devanagari (he did his PhD on a certain kind of Ancient Greek liturgies, and learnt Sanskrit, Pali and bunch of other languages for fun. And by learnt, I mean learnt _very_ well, at least by my standards :-) ). He uses transliterated versions of everything though, and doesn’t pay too much attention to the pronunciation. That’s very different from the kind of environment I’ve been exposed to, where every missed mahaprana was a rap on the knuckles!

    Anyway, because he uses the English script (with some diacritic marks), a lot of Sandhis which I have memorized as hard rules are ‘natural’ to him. Since the ‘regular’ Sandhis have been drilled into me for quite some time, I can still ‘see’ them happening. But some of the more esoteric ones, especially the internal Sandhis (which come up frequently when working on etymologies) are still unnatural to me, while for him it’s obvious. For example, he uses only a ‘t’ to represent both the ट and the त, but puts a retroflex dot below the ट t’s. He uses just one ‘s’ for and ष and स. There’s an internal sandhi rule that states retroflexes are contagious, so if a ‘ष’ comes in with a ‘t’, or the other way round, both become retroflexes. In my mind, the ट is worlds apart from the त and the ष from the स, so this is a rule I must forcibly internalize. But for him, he sees it right there in the text! Some verb-endings are also easier to see this way.

    2. It had been a long time since I had written Kannada in Kannada script (it doesn’t have a name?), and felt a few interesting things when I did. I seem to have gotten used to reading words instead of syllables or characters, and so making sure the ka-gunita was right was a pain. In English I don’t even hope for any orthography, so the sound, meaning and sight of a word are 3 independent pieces of info that seemed to be stored. The orthography in Kannada makes a link between sound and sight, but if you read fast enough you wouldn’t care about it anyway. When writing it becomes a pain because you have to pay attention.

    In fact, now I appreciate Arabic better! Modern written Arabic (or Hebrew or most other Semitic languages) includes _no_ vowel signs, so it actually looks like a shorthand and makes for much faster writing. Reading wouldn’t matter as anyone would have got used to their system anyway. The trouble seems to come only when a beginner or a foreigner tries to make some sense of things, and that’s when orthography rules!

    (In this context though, I don’t get how the Tamil alphabet came to be what it is. There is multiple coding there too (between voiced and unvoiced sounds, and cha sa sha, etc), but that doesn’t seem to make life any easier. You don’t write lesser, and you still include a lot of redundancies!)


    Wed, 2009-11-04 at 15:35:25

    • It’s cool that you’re learning Sanskrit!

      And er, IAST? It’s pretty much the “standard”. :p
      (Another good thing about IAST/English script is that you can break up sandhi; see e.g. the convention adopted by the Clay Sanskrit Library series (which I just found out is closing, very sadly).)

      The Tamil alphabet is just brain-damaged; there’s no excuse for it. It uses the same letter to represent half-a-dozen sounds, and doesn’t even support half-letters (consonants) properly. If it’s true that the Tamil script came after the Grantha script, then there’s absolutely no acceptable reason why it should have turned out so awful :P


      Thu, 2009-11-05 at 01:17:52

  6. […] the tongue twister to speak aloud. Shree­vatsa has another poem in the arti­cle […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: