A guide to Europe’s most fiendish tongue twisters

She sells sea shells...

She sells sea shells... - Credit: Archant

Mind-boggling palindromes and decidedly odd tongue twisters

Tongue Twisters

From the well-known line 'around the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran' to the awkward phrase 'red leather, yellow leather' one aspect of mastering a language is being able to master its tongue twisters. And they are always decidedly odd sentences:

Combien de sous sont ces saucissons-ci? Ces saucissons-ci sont six sous (French) ('How much are these sausages here? These sausages here are six cents.')

Zwei schwartze schleimige Schlangen sitzen zwischen zwei spitzigen Steinen und zischen (German) ('Two black slimy snakes sit between two pointed stones and hiss')

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M?la babka v kapse brabce, brabec babce v kapse píp. Zmá?kla babka brabce v kapse, brabec babce v kapse chcíp (Czech) ('Grandma had a sparrow in her pocket and the sparrow made a sound. Grandma pressed the sparrow and it died')

Als vliegen achter vliegen vliegen, vliegen vliegen vliegensvlug (Dutch) ('If flies fly behind flies, flies will fly like lightning')

Król Karol kupi? Królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego (Polish) ('King Karl bought Queen Caroline coral-coloured bead')

Far, Får får får? Nej, inte får får får, får får lamm (Swedish) ('Father, do sheep have sheep? No, sheep don't have sheep, sheep have lambs?)

As for the English language, we are provided with the following:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood that he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood

Sister Sue sells sea shells. She sells sea shells on shore. The shells she sells. Are sea shells she sees. Sure she sees shells she sells

You've known me to light a night light on a light night like tonight. There's no need to light a night light on a light night like tonight, for a night light's a slight light on tonight's light night

Some short words or phrases 'become' tongue-twisters when repeated, a number of times fast (try it):

Thin Thing

French Friend

Red Leather, Yellow Leather

Unique New York

Sometimes Sunshine

Irish Wristwatch

Big Whip


No matter their length, words have provided excellent material for games from the earliest times. One of the more pleasing arrangements is the palindrome, which is spelt the same backwards as forwards. The Germans have even come up with a palindromic word – Eibohphobie – that means a fear of palindromes. All in all, they can create some bizarre meanings:

neulo taas niin saat oluen (Finnish) ('knit again, so that you will get a beer')

Nie fragt sie: ist gefegt? Sie ist gar fein (German) ('she never asks: has the sweeping been done? She is very refined')

in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (Latin) ('we enter the circle after dark and are consumed by fire')

The Finns have the three longest palindromic words:

saippuakivikauppias a soapstone seller

saippuakuppinippukauppias a soap cup trader

solutomaattimittaamotulos the result from a measurement laboratory for tomatoes

While here are some of the better and longer European palindromic phrases that aren't too non-sensical:

a dyma'r addewid diweddar am y da (Welsh) ('and here is the recent promise about the livestock')

Socorram-me, subi no onibus em Marrocos (Portuguese) ('help me I took a bus in Morocco')

selmas lakserøde garagedøre skal samles (Danish) ('Selma's salmon red garage doors must be assembled)

Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor (Latin) ('in Rome love will come to you suddenly)

As for the English language, we are provided with the following:

never odd or even

was it a cat I saw?

do geese see God?

a man, a plan, a canal, Panama

go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog

murder for a jar of red rum

rats live on no evil star

rise to vote, sir

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books

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