What is the most difficult tongue twister in the English language? What about the most difficult in any language? On social media and YouTube, in language classes and in scholarly books, word lovers around the world are having fun trying to answer these questions, mangling many mouthfuls of morphemes as they go.
Let’s first check in with the experts. According to Guinness World Records, the most challenging English twister is “The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick.” It plays around with a k-s-th consonant cluster, a difficult enough sound for many native English speakers, let alone speakers of English as a second language.
Guinness stopped monitoring the tongue twister category in 1974, so we turn to the academics for updated information. In 2013, speech communication scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a particularly tricky twister to help them study the ways speech can go wrong: “pad kid poured curd pulled cod.” While this is nowhere near as elegant as the previous one, it is extremely hard to say – none of the scientists’ test subjects could get through it 10 times, and I find it hard to say even once.
Tongue twisters in other languages present a range of challenges for English speakers.
The most difficult twister in the world, according to the 1974 Guinness Records, comes from Xhosa: Iqaqa laziqikaqika kwazw kwaqhawaka uqhoqhoqha (the skunk rolled down and ruptured its larynx). This is even harder than the English transcription makes it seem, since it includes click consonants, made by sucking air in against various parts of the mouth, which are extremely difficult for nonnative speakers to reproduce.
While English has some hefty consonant clusters of its own, they’re nothing compared to those found in Slavic languages and in Georgian. Czech has a tongue twister with no vowels but plenty of rolled r’s: Strč prst skrz krk (stick your finger through your throat). A single Georgian word can be a tongue twister: Gvprtskvni (you peel us) has eight consonant sounds before its lone vowel.
Then there are tonal languages, which use pitch to distinguish words. In the 1930s, Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chao wrote quite a long poem called “Shī-shì shí shī shǐ” (“Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den”) using, as you can see from the English transcription, only shi and relying on Mandarin’s four tones.
To me, this one takes the peck of pickled peppers.