The Difficulties of English Pronunciation

My blogging friend David Miller of sent me this amazing poem that highlights the problems of learning how to pronounce words in English. It is a wonder that anyone is able to master it as a foreign language, and that’s even before you add regional accents into the mix. It is very long, but I hope you enjoy it.

The Chaos (by G. Nolst Trenité, a.k.a. “Charivarius”; 1870 – 1946)

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,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,

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 break, steak, but bleak and streak.

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,

Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.

Wholly, holly, signal, signing.
Thames, examining, combining

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.

From “desire”: desirable–admirable from “admire.”
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.

Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.
Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,

One, anemone. Balmoral.
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,

Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.
Scene, Melpomene, mankind,

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, reading, heathen, heather.

This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;

Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with “darky.”

Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.
Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s O.K.,
When you say correctly: croquet.

Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive, and live,

Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,

We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police, and lice.

Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label,

Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.

Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”

But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous, clamour
And enamour rime with hammer.

Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.

Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rime with anger.
Neither does devour with clangour.

Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.
Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.
And then: singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.

Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual.

Seat, sweat; chaste, caste.; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, and unite.

Reefer does not rime with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific,

Tour, but our and succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria,

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.

Say aver, but ever, fever.
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.

Never guess–it is not safe:
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.

Heron, granary, canary,
Crevice and device, and eyrie,

Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,

Ear but earn, and wear and bear
Do not rime with here, but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation–think of psyche–!
Is a paling, stout and spikey,

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 rimes with “enough”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?

Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”
My advice is–give it up!

62 thoughts on “The Difficulties of English Pronunciation

  1. Very clever.
    There’s (at least) 1 English place name that always gives people, foreigners and even English people not from that area, a problem. That is a little town in the north west of England called Cholmondely. It’s pronounced Chumley.
    Just one point, though. Is Rhyme deliberately spelled Rime? That spelling refers to frost. (Yet another strange thing in our wonderful, rich language.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mentioned ‘Rime’ in reply to Jon’s comment lower down, Vivienne. I have a French friend, and I used to love hearing her try to pronounce the name of the beer, Guinness. She could never pronounce it ‘hard’, and always said something like “Gwannice”. Not far from where I live in Norfolk is a town called Wymondham. When I first moved to the county, I pronounced it “Why-Mond-Ham”, much to the amusement of locals (It is pronounced ‘Wind-em’.) Then there is the coastal village of Happisburgh, pronounced locally as ‘Hazebrough’. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.


    1. Thanks, Abegail. I think it is very brave of you to try to pronounce many of these words. Many English people struggle with some of them.
      And many thanks for following my blog.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  2. Absolutely true! When I was taking a Spanish class a few years ago, el professor/the teacher commented on how easy Spanish is, because it follows certain rules. He said some verbs always follow this pattern: Hablar, Hablo, Habla, Hablamos and Hablan. To speak, I speak, You speak (as well as he, she, it speaks), We speak and They speak. So, almost any verb that ends with “-ar” will be conjugated in the same way and have generally the same sound. On the other hand, in English he said, for example, the words Bug, Bugle, Build, Buccaneer – even though they all start with BU – all sound different. Because there is no pattern, he said it is “almost impossible” to learn English! Then he said it’s even harder to learn German and Russian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mona. I think English is very hard to learn if you want to speak coloquially. In Britain, we also have many regional expressions and different accents to contend with.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  3. Mark Twain famously wanted to “standardize” American English spelling to avoid all of the kinds of misunderstandings illustrated in the poem. Arguably, languages with more standardized spellings (i.e. Finnish) have fewer problems with students struggling to learn how to read because the rules are simpler and easier to master at a rapid rate. This is also why students in Finland often don’t receive formal instruction in reading until they are older because the letter/sound correspondences are just not that complicated, while learning to read and spell in English requires much more instruction because of the redundancies of letter and sound correspondences. – L.J.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s interesting to know about the differences in Finnish.
      I have an English friend who lives in Turkey, and he tells me that the Finnish and Turkish launguages are related, which I found surprising.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I only know French, which I found to be not too bad once I got over the masculine/feminine endings.
          I tried some German in Germany, and had to remember it was the other way round. As in “To the station I am going”.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a very good, if long, illustration of the oddities of British English pronunciation but, to be fair, there are plenty of them! Several observations to make: several of these words have been imported from other languages and mostly, but not always, Anglicised, as is our wont [not won’t, but we will]; there has always been some leeway for variation of pronunciation, viz: Ralph pronounced “Rafe”. I’m curious as to the spelling of “rimes”: was that deliberate, I wonder – six separate usages. Inevitably, there will be differences in pronunciation by other English-speaking nations: we seem to have recently imported the first-syllable emphasis of harass, now as “Har-ASS”, instead of how it always was, “HAR-ass”, and it is becoming ubiquitous [along with the very irritating rising inflection on a statement, not a question]. I’ve also noticed how Americans use lead where we would write led, as the past tense: I wonder why this is? Anyway, all that notwithstanding, our peculiarities of pronunciation must be a nightmare for people learning English as a foreign language. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Jon. I thought French was hard enough when I learned it, but we certainly have a very confusing language. Rime/s is a word for the accumulation of ice into a crust, so that may have been the use here.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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