Words can be tricky things to say. They get tangled around and come out all wrong if you're not careful, and sometimes even if you are.
Which is why actors and others who perform using their voices do enunciation exercises to warm up their vocal apparatus. The most famous such exercise is probably the rhyme from the elocution lessons in Singin' in the Rain: "Moses supposes his toses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously." In high school I did a lot of backstage work, and I never tired of listening to the actors repeating in rapid unison (and with careful, exaggerated pronunciation) phrases like:
- He usually urges an umbrella upon us.
- In India, individual effort is intensified.
- Out of the opposition, an eloquent orator arose.
Sometimes the actors would chant together, with a variety of intonations and at a variety of volumes:
Whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot,
We'll be together whatever the weather, whether we like it or not!
(I was later told that the original of that was:
Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not,
We'll weather the weather whatever the weather, whether we like it or not!
Other times, they would say a phrase that I've been told is from Shakespeare: "the tip of the tongue, the lips and the teeth." In a similar vein, some actor friends of mine in college used a bit from the beginning of Lolita: "...the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth." (The same group also liked to warm up with "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul," but perhaps we'd best not go into that.) And speaking of emphasis on 't' sounds, Michael Bernstein taught me the line "ten tiny tots on the train tracks" (which he may have gotten from the movie Speechless).
The line is a thin one between vocal warmups and simple tongue twisters. I'd rather not try to produce an exhaustive list of tongue twisters (so please don't send me "rubber baby buggy bumpers" or "the sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick"), but I can't resist mentioning a few fairly obscure ones. Stephen Sondheim, for instance, has elevated the tongue-twister to an art form. Here are two lines from Into the Woods:
- "We've no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her."
- "It's your father's fault that the curse got placed and the place got cursed in the first place."
Some others I've heard (if one time through is too easy, repeat 'em):
- Cecil vexeth Essex.
- One black bug bled blue-black blood while the other black bug bled blue.
- The Lethe police dismisseth us.
- The seething sea ceaseth, and so the seething sea sufficeth us.
- Sinful Caesar sipped his snifter, seized his knees, and sneezed.
- unique New York
- Peggy Babcock
And some twisters that I believe various friends and I came up with:
- illuminated aluminum linoleum
- insidious avian amphibian amphetamines
- Spenser's censors' censures
- close-cropped curls
- self-stultifyingly eristic flummoxed skink
(That last combines a phrase from a game called Trinity with (if I remember right) a line from a book review.)
And finally, a great long bit for warming up that may come from a movie, possibly The Court Jester:
What a to-do to die today, at a minute or two to two;
a thing distinctly hard to say, but harder still to do.
We'll beat a tattoo, at twenty to two
a rat-tat-tat- tat-tat-tat- tat-tat-tattoo
and the dragon will come when he hears the drum
at a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two to two.
[2018 update: For more on that last piece, see the comments on a later post. It's from a comic opera called Merrie England.]
I'm obviously a bit short on sources this week; if you send citations for unattributed lines, I'll gratefully list them in the reader response page.