“It’s hard to explain why I like Europe so much”.
Grab yourself a glass of water, gargle quietly in the dark (make sure that no one’s looking) and get ready to practice some of the most notorious tongue twisters in Europe! You have a lisp? Then give the Czech ‘Jazykolam’ a try. If you find it hard to pronounce your throaty R, then the Portuguese ‘trava-língua’ will certainly be your worst nightmare! And – however surprising it may seem – some tongue twisters actually tell a story: like in Italy, Norway and England, where its not just oral acrobatics, but a genuine meaning you have to get to grips with — something that can give you a great insight into those countries’ culture and history. In Czech Republic or Estonia, don’t try to overinterpret because they are nothing more than nonsense — even if they’ll definitely set tongues wagging. And, obviously, most of them are quite unpronounceable. For better or worse, tongue twisters are among those little things explaining why we love Europe so much.
“O Rato roeu a roupa do Rei de Rússia e a Rainha, raivosa, rasgou o resto”
You wonder why Russia doesn’t have a King any more? Don’t we all. The answer might lie in the Portuguese ‘trava-língua’, based on the sound [ʁ], which professionals call a voiced uvular fricative (the rest of us might just say a sort of throaty R). It seems His Highness went through very hard times: “the rat nibbled the clothes of the Russian King, and the angry Queen tore the rest”. This has nothing to do with a weird Portuguese tradition or any Lusitanian custom. And yes, monarchy has always been an overrated privilege… Portugal abolished theirs in 1910!
“Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal.”
Forget your trendy quinoa diet! The new food fad is apparently, “wheat from a wheat field“, which, in Spain, “three sad tigers swallowed”. Why are there tigers in Spain? Why are they sad? Is it because they’ve had to forego their usual meat-based diet? History does not relate. But have a go at this Spanish ‘trabalengua’, offering the chance to differentiate the sounds tr, g and s, and you’ll soon work up an appetite. Wheat optional.
“Les chaussettes de l’archi-duchesse, sont-elles sèches, archi-sèches ?”
The French hate inequality… but they love privilege! It’s well known that aristocrats haven’t fared very well in the Hexagon — after the revolution, wet socks were the least of their worries. But the most famous French ‘virelangue’ is a complicated love story between socks, an aristocrat and the most existential question on earth: “Are the archduchess’s socks dry – extra dry?”. The whole is considered being a good exercise to differentiate the sounds [s] as in sun, and [ʃ] as in crash.
“Það fer nú að verða verra ferðaveðrið”
You remember the Icelandic volcano? The Eyjafjallajökull? Worse than all the cancelled flights was that no-one knew how to say the damn thing. But that’s nothing compared to the most famous Icelandic tongue twister — which also, incidentally, also relates to bad weather. Well, what did you expect from a small rain-beaten lump of rock in the middle of the sea? In English, it would say something like: “it is getting worse, the travelling weather” but somehow all those strange letters make it seem far more dramatic.
“Ná bac le mac an bhacaigh agus ní bhacaigh mac an bhacaigh leat”
Imagine yourself in an Irish pub, maybe playing darts, exchanging some good jokes, enjoying the taste of a dark Guinness… Cheers! And then, suddenly, a joyful Irishman smelling more than faintly of alcohol comes over and whispers tenderly in your ears this essential life maxim: “don’t bother the beggar’s son and the beggar’s son won’t bother you”. Suddenly everything seems clear: or maybe that’s just the Guinness. Now you are proud to know one of the best kept secrets in the world…
“She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore. The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure. For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore. Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.”
Mary Anning was a 19th century British palaeontologist, fossil collector on the side and dealer in her though days. Why are we talking about her? Because she is at the source of one of the most famous English tongue twisters — the one making your tongue twist between the s-sound [s] and the sh of [ʃ]. It’s Anning – whose working-classs cabinet-maker father was mentioned by Jane Austen in 1804 – who sold the now famous shells . She’s even inspired a song by Terry Sullivan.
“Ibsens ripsbusker og andre buskvekster“
The Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen’s plays examine the often disquieting reality lying behind the façade. His alleged passion for gardening is, perhaps, less generally well-known: but not by his countrymen. “Ibsen’s redcurrant bushes and other shrubs,” they like to say, giving them an opportunity to dance their tongue between the sounds [Bʉ] and [s].
“Sju sjösjuka sjömän sköttes av sju sköna sjuksköterskor”
It will surprise few to hear that Sweden is a nation of fishermen. Swedes even made one of their seafood delicacies enter our glorious list of European culinary horrors (have a look at it at your own risk, unless your stomach is feeling particularly robust). So it’s quite logical that their ‘Tungvrickare’ would be a story about “Seven seasick seamen, taken care of by seven beautiful nurses”. This sounds like a good pitch for a typical Scandinavian fairytale. But, unfortunately, we never get to find out if our amorous mariners lived happily ever after.
“Vesihiisi sihisi hississä”
Finnish folklore is full of creatures and monsters. Little wonder then that, while the French obsess over aristocrats in their tongue twisters, Finns want to talk troll. Their ‘Sanahirviö’ would make the perfect plot for a the next Lord of the Rings-style blockbuster. “A water troll hissed in the lift” – I can just see the opening credits now. How would the hero of our movie beat the troll if she or he can’t even depict the situation? Another unanswerable question…
“Rød grød med fløde“
Danes have incredible desserts, and not only for Christmas. “Red porridge with cream” is a yummy Danish pudding served with an assortment of summer berries, such as raspberries or redcurrants. Whether on the tip of your tongue or in the hollow of your spoon, this is something that will make your mouth water… But if you find yourself tongue tied when wondering how to ask for it from your Copenhagen waiter, help is at hand with our phonetic guide: just [ˈʁœðˀgʁœðˀ] and you’ll have your just desserts.
“Kapper Knap, de knappe kapper, knipt en kapt heel knap, maar de knecht van kapper Knap, de knappe kapper, knipt en kapt nog knapper dan kapper Knap, de knappe kapper“
Ah! Those tall Dutch people! With their neat hipster style… And their barbers, oh have you seen their barbers? We’ve been told they are particularly handsome, but difficult to seduce if you have to compliment them with the most famous Dutch ‘tongbreker‘. In English it would be: “Knap the barber, the handsome barber, cuts hair well, but the handsome servant of Knap the barber, the handsome barber, cuts hair more handsomely than the handsome barber can.” But you’ll have to practice in original language obviously. Otherwise you would lose all the charm…
“Des bounès holès molès wåfes“
Belgium’s official languages are Dutch, French and German. Yes, all three! But it would be too simple if there were only three languages… Because there are also regional languages such as Walloon which offers us the opportunity to practice some famous ‘Toitche-linwe’. It sounds like broken French, or drunk Greek, but well… which tongue twister wouldn’t sound strange anyway?
“Wann aeren Decken eisen Decken nach eng Keier Decke vernennt, vernennt eisen Decken aeren decken esou laang Decke bis aeren Decken eisen Decken net mei decke vernennt.“
Luxembourg people are not particularly famous for their wicked sense of humour or crazy social interactions. In fact, you wouldn’t dare breach protocol in the Grand Duchy. But – because there is always an exception to the rule – their (rather long) ‘Zungenbrecher’ is surprisingly hilarious. It means “If your fat man calls our fat man “fat man” one more time, then our fat man will call your fat man “fat man” until your fat man doesn’t call our fat man “fat man” any more.” We had wars in Europe for less than that…
“Fischers Fritz fischt frische Fische, frische Fische fischt Fischers Fritz.“
Ever heard of Fritzchen, the little scamp making childish jokes in German folklore? Well, it turns out he can make your tongue twist as well as your sides split, in the German prominent ‘Zungenbrecher’. Get ready, as this one more or less works in English as well: “Fritz, the fisherman’s son is fishing for fresh fish”. If you can say this ten times in a row, you’re a real master of the German language!
“Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid”.
What is the most repulsive Austrian dish? Certainly not red cabbage …. though you probably wouldn’t want too much of it on your wedding day, whatever they say in their ‘Zungenbrecher.’ “A wedding dress remains a wedding dress and red cabbage remains red cabbage.” If you are invited to an Austrian wedding one day, please avoid saying this tongue twister to the bride. She might not take it very well…
“De Paapscht hät z’Schpiez s’Schpäckschpickpschteck z’schpaat pschtellt.“
“Let’s twist again! But in Swiss German this time…” Ok, the Chubby Checker song may not be about tongue twisters, but you will definitely feel dizzy practising it! This ‘Zungenbrecher’ is about the Pope, who, according to the Swiss, had an insatiable appetite. “In Spiez, the Pope ordered his cutlery too late”, they say. But you’d be forgiven for thinking our Swiss correspondent had just fallen asleep on the keyboard to generate such a random list of letters….
“Trentatré trentini entrarono a Trento, tutti e trentatré trotterellando di tratto in tratto“.
Just after the First World War, in 1919, a small group of people from Trentino entered their city after the signature of the Treaty of Saint-Germain which integrated the city into Italy, together with the new Province of Bolzano (South Tyrol). This historical milestone gave birth to one of the most famous Italian ‘scioglilingua’, which means in English: “Thirty three people from Trentino came into Trento, all thirty three trotting”. A very modest number of people, indeed, even if in reality the number was probably greater than 33.
“Toni tagħna tani tuta talli tajtu tina tajba. Trid tara ’l Toni tagħna tiela’ t-telgħa tat-trott!”
In some European countries, tongue twisters sound like beautiful poems inspired by acts of kindness. The cruel ditties recited in Portugal, Slovakia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have a lot to learn from Malta, where the ‘Tagħwiġ l-Ilsien’ is about food and gifts: “Our Tony gave me a fig because I had given him a delicious blackberry. You should have seen our Tony going up the horseracing hill!“. If you feel you were not as kind as Tony today, we strongly advise you to repeat this tongue twister ten times…
“Strč prst skrz krk”
They had to be one! And it’s the Czech one… the Czech ‘Jazykolam’ is at the same time a tongue twister well known for its total absence of vowels and a very ‘handy’ piece of advice. Why? Because it simply means: “stick your finger down your throat”. Czech people often use this tongue twister to judge whether you are drunk or not. Yes, you read it correctly… As if it was already simple to pronounce it when sobre…
“V našej peci myši pištia, v našej peci psík spí.”
There are in Europe people inclined to believe in beautiful magic, enchanting fairy tales and fantastic beasts. And then there are the Slovaks. Their ‘Jazykolamy’ is, not to put too fine a point on it, about animal cruelty. “Mice squeak in our oven, a dog sleeps in our oven”. Yep! And the worst is that Slovak children often exercise their pronunciation on this tongue twister at school. By the way, who is taking care of the school pet this week-end?
“Fekete bikapata kopog a patika pepita kövén.”
Hungarian is already considered one of Europe’s most difficult languages, and that’s just when you’re asking for directions to the station, so imagine how hard its tongue twister would be! If the Portuguese or Spanish tongue twisters were level one, now you’re about to face the final boss. “There are black bull’s hooves clattering on the checked pharmacy stones,” say children, testing their linguistic mettle with this fiendish ‘Nyelvtörő‘. Well, if a child can do it, so can you…
“W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie”
Some languages are so complicated, they can even overcome native speakers. Take the Poles, who find it quite hard to read even the first line of the famous poem Chrząszcz written by Jan Brzechwa. “In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed”. Not so difficult in English. But try it in Polish and you will find that this ‘Łamaniec językowy’ is worst than a nightmare. Don’t say we’re not a generous lot: we’ll even give you the phonetics to help: [fʃt͡ʃɛbʒɛˈʃɨɲɛ ˈxʃɔ̃w̃ʃt͡ʃ ˈbʒmi ˈftʃt͡ɕiɲɛ]s
“Šešios žąsys su šešiais žąsyčiais.”
“Simon says, try pronouncing the Lithuanian tongue twister!” Not feeling up to it? Then you’ll have to three times repeat the Lithuanian ‘Greitakalbė’ – a kind of game of ornithological Happy Families that incidentally also tests your ability to say [s] and [ʃ]. It means “Six geese with six goslings” and is full of accents on almost every single letter. Managed to pronounce it? Good for you, but we didn’t say “Simon says”…
“Dzīvē dzīvo dzīvu dzīvi! Dzīvam dzīvē dzīva dzīve.”
Remember when we were kids playing on the swing set and you’d try to swing so high that you’d fly over the top bar and come down the other side? No, I never made it either. But in Latvia, they’ve taken a childhood dream and made it an extreme game. It’s called kiiking and it makes them very happy. Latvian people are so joyful, that their ‘ātrruna’ is an ode to happiness. “In your life live a lively life! A lively person lives a lively life”. Now just try twisting your tongue on it while kiiking!
“Kuuuurija istus töööös jääääres”
Like the Swiss only more so: this Estonian ‘Keelemäng’ really does look as if somebody just fell asleep on his keyboard. Nothing of the kind! It’s just that Estonian words contain many vowels – which, strange enough, gave the Estonians the reputation of being slow. It means “The moon-scientist sat in a working night at the edge of the ice”. Sounds poetic: if only we knew what this scientist eventually came up with!
“Шла Саша по шоссе и сосала сушку”
Tongue twisters in your mother tongue are one thing: in a foreign language they’re quite another. In a different alphabet… well that’s just a whole different ball game again. In Latin characters, this Belarussian and Russian ‘скороговорки’ would be written as following: “Shla Sasha po shosse i sosala sushku”. It means “Sasha walked down the highway and sucked on a dry cracker”. Bully for Sasha.
“Бавились в брудній баюрі два бобри брунатно-бурі. – “Правда добре, друже бобре?”- “Дуже добре, брате бобре!””
The Ukrainian tongue twister almost sounds like a nursery rhyme, full of poetry and enchantment. It’s a sort of dialogue between two friendly beavers. The ‘Скоромовка’ reads in English: “Two grey-brown beavers were fooling in a mudhole. “Isn’t it good, my friend?” – “Very good, my brother!“” Probably not very hygienic, but the perfect way to master the Ukrainian language!
“Ştiu că ştiu că ştiuca-i ştiucă şi mai ştiu că ştiuca-i peşte”.
“I think, therefore I am” as French philosopher René Descartes put it. We couldn’t help but think about him when we discovered the ‘Frântură de limbă’ from Moldova which bridges the gap between pronunciation exercise and existentialism. It plays with the word ştiucă and its two meanings for a rather mysterious sentence: “I know that I know that pike is a pike and I also know that pike is a fish”. In what other language would you ask yourself such a question?
“Capra calcă piatra/piatra crapă-n patru/crăpa-i-ar capul caprei/cum a crăpat capra piatra-n patru”
Not content with just making cheese from their milk, Romanians use goats to make their ‘Frântură de limbă’ too: this one not only rhymes, it may even be the most famous. It reads: “The goat stepped on the rock/the rock broke in four/may the goat’s head break in four/as the goat broke the rock in four”. This reminds us of a famous, if sad, Romanian fairy tale ‘the Goat and Her Three Kids’ which teaches little children why it is important to obey their mother and beware of strangers…
“Klobuk pod klopco.”
Did you know that, apart from the national anthem, the Slovene hat is one of the symbol of Slovenia? In the late 1980s, several symbols from the Middle Ages were revived as Slovene national symbols. Among them, the most popular was the so-called Windic (or ‘Slovene Hat’), the coat of arms of the Windic March – a medieval frontier march of the Holy Roman Empire. You wouldn’t be surprised then, that their national ‘lomilci jezika’ is about “A hat under a bench”. This looks like an easy tongue twister, especially when compared to the others of this list, but in fact is rather difficult to pronounce if you are not a native speaker.
“Petar Petru plete petlju”
Life partnership between same-sex couples has been recognised under Croatian law since 2014, and the country ranks 5th out of 49 European countries for LGBT rights. But it seems that Croatia’s gay-friendly culture extends even further back, reaching even into its ‘Jezikolomci’. This simple yet touching tale is of Peter and Peter, who are knitting each others knots. “Peter knits a knot for Peter”. Sweet. Now what they did with the knot afterwards, of course, is a completely different story…
Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Риба риби гризе реп”
There is in Bosnia and Herzegovina a beautiful fairytale about a golden fish. It says that, one day, a poor old man hooked a small gold fish, whose eyes shone as bright as diamonds. The little creature cried “Let me go, kind man…” and the old man’s mercy brought him wealth and happiness in return… This elevating story mirrors the Bosnian ‘Jezikolomci’ which means “one fish bites another fish’s tail”. In the Latin alphabet, it would be written as: “Riba ribi grize rep”.
“На врх брда врба мрда”
The Serbian letter “r” is often used as a vowel and requires some serious tongue-rolling. The country’s most famous ‘фраза тешка за изговарање’ (tongue twister) is rather poetic: ‘on the top of the hill the willow is swaying‘. It would be written like this in the Latin alphabet: “Na vrh brda vrba mrda”. The last word in the phrase, “mrda” reminds us of the famous quote from Scottish TV detective Taggart, ‘there’s been a murrrrrderrr’. If you can say that correctly, Serbian is the language for you.
“Kali, karroca, karroca, karocierri.”
Let’s ride the Albanian ‘Tornado gjuha’ which means “Horse, coach, coach, coachman!” – reliving the country’s obsession with the equine. Before the Communist era in Albania, the Albanian horse had a good reputation for endurance and stamina: they even have their own small indigenous breed. If it’s not the mountain dweller, it’s probably a “Myzeqeja”, named after the lowland Myzeqeja region. You can try them when on holidays in the country!
Bulgaria - Macedonia
“Петър плет плете, през три пръта преплита. Подпри, Петре, плета, падна, Петре, плетът”
Peter is coming back! But we have no idea where his very good friend is gone. We fear the worst when we think about the knot… This time, Peter tries a spot of fencing in the Bulgarian ‘Скоропоговорката’ : “Peter is making a fence. He skips every three rods. Prop up the fence, Peter! The fence is down, Peter”. Making a fence, skipping rods… hmm, maybe he should have just used the knot he got from Croatia?
“Άσπρη πέτρα ξέξασπρη και απ’τον ήλιο ξεξασπρότερη”
Greece in summer is a must! Every day of Greek summer feels like a celebration – and that’s because it is! Hospitable, bright and colourful, it offers incredible treasures to all. It comes then as no surprise that the most famous ‘Γλωσσοδέτης’ is full of light just as the country can be. We would translate it as “A white stone very bright, even brighter than the sun”: but listen for yourself and you’ll see it loses a lot of musicality in translation.
“Şu yoğurdu sarımsaklasak da mı saklasak, sarımsaklamasak da mı saklasak?”
And we end with Turkey, and a culinary tongue twister. Turkish cuisine is famous for its use of yoghurt and garlic, both found in almost every dish. But to come up with those recipes, they had to experiment a lot beforehand. The ‘Tekerleme’ is then a simple question of cookery: “Should we add garlic in that yogurt and then keep it, or should we not add garlic and keep it?”. No matter how much, we are sure it will still taste yummy!