Pronouncing English

Not only for foreigns speakers, it is impossible to guess the correct pronounciation (i.e. a pronounciation that is considered correct by a group of native speakers) of a given English word just by its spelling. This is a fact and if you don't believe me read the following poem by Gerard Nolst Trenitéout loud:

The Chaos

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
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.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, 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, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

And if you have no clue how to pronounce some of the words, take advise from this video: 

Der In Der In Der In Der In

Recently I stumbled upon my own blog article on linguistic repetition plays. As I write most of my blog posts mainly to remind myself of things, it was a quite interesting read ;-) In the meantime I have found another German repetition play I really like. It is presented in the form of a riddle: "Bilden Sie mal einen Satz mit viermal 'der in'" ("Build a German sentence that uses four times 'der in'?") The solution ist as easy as it is surprising:

Der Inder in der Inderin.

Translation: The male Indian inside of the female Indian. 

Those "Can you say a sentence" jokes have been pretty popular when my parents were younger so there is quite a number of them:

Sag mal einen Satz mit...

  • Dresden -> Steckst nen Finger in die Nase und dresden (i.e. drehst ihn)
  • Weihnachtsfest -> Der Hirsch hält sein Geweih nachts fest
  • Weihnachtsstern -> Mich würd so ein Geweih nachts stern (störn)

On this page by Michael Schreiner are a lot of other examples

Rilke: Translating "What Survives" into German

Rilke, 1900

What a journey! In the first (and impressive) episode of the brand new SyFy series "The Magicians" a character is reciting a German poem (48:22). Well, at least this is supposed to be the case, as a matter of fact I was not sure if this is German, some historical slavian fantasy estonian or just made up sounds. But then, there were some sentences that could be understood: "Die Quantenstufe? Wer sagt, dass alle verschwinden müssen? Wer weiße moglikerweise der Flug der Vogels der sie verletzte überreste? Unde möglikerweise überleben Blumen" Apparently, this was a quote from a famous German poet and wizard named "Rachkach." ... Well. I never heard this name before, nor was I sure if this was a name at all. A famous german poet with an interest in occultism? Goethe comes to mind, but in English it is generally pronounced more like "Go-theee" so I could not find a link to "Rachkach".
Google was not helpful for the first 20 minutes. I found a source, indeed, but it was a cambridge master thesis with the topic "Christ Among Them: Incarnation and Renaissance in Medieval Italian Culture" by Edoardo Mungiello from 2008. But, reading this, the German is not better here, maybe it is a product by Google Translate:

Wer sagt, daß alle verschwinden müssen? Weir weiß, möglicherweise
der Flug des Vogels verwunden Sie des Remains und möglicherweise
überleben Blumen Liebskosungen in uns, In ihrem Boden.

Es is nicht die Geste, die dauert, aber es kleidet Sie wieder in der
Goldrüstung - von Brust zu knie- Und die Schacht war – ein Engel
trägt ihn nach Ihnen so rein.

—Was Überlebt, Rainer Maria Rilke. 

But, at least, a name, or make that two: The author seems to be the Austrian poetrist Rainer Maria Rilke, english possibly pronounced as Rachkach, and he is indeed one of the most famous poets of the German language (and indeed with a profound interest in occultism). And the poem seems to be "Was überlebt". But after searching this for 20 other minutes: There seems to be no poem with this name by Rilke. So how could this be? Two sources with several years distance between them, both quoting the same miswritten poem - and nothing else? Maybe it was a backtranslation from English to a supposed-to-be German - so I tried searching for Rilke poems with keywords like Goldrüstung or Engel or Blume or Vogelflug. Nothing. So, maybe this is not by Rilke at all, so I tried searching for German poems in general with these keywords. Nothing. ... Well. Maybe... it is... an English poem, mistaken for a German one? So I googled "What survives" and "Rilke" - and tadaa: Here it is. 

Who says that all must vanish?
Who knows, perhaps the flight
of the bird you wound remains,
and perhaps flowers survive
caresses in us, in their ground.

It isn't the gesture that lasts,
but it dresses you again in gold
armor --from breast to knees--
and the battle was so pure
an Angel wears it after you.

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by A. Poulin 

The comments on this site helped me with the rest: Apparently, Rilke wrote several hundreds of his poems in French. This one was beautifully translated by the american poet Alfred Poulin and seems to be quite popular in the English speaking world. So, well, this is the original version:

Qui te dit que tout disparaisse? 
De l'oiseau que tu blesses, 
Qui sait s'il ne reste le vol? 
Et peut-être les fleurs des caresses 
Survivent à nous, de leur sol. 

Ce n'est pas le geste qui dure, 
Mais il nous revêt de l'armure 
D'or, des flancs aux genoux, 
Et tant la bataille fut pure, 
qu'un Ange la porte après vous. 

That was hard work to find it and I am quite surprised it was. But as a favor for you English speaking guys I will translate the french poem to correct and somewhat nice German now -so you can quote it in your favorite language in the next tv series - I try to keep the wording similar to the quasi canonical translation I found two sources for...

Wer sagt uns, dass alles verschwinden wird?
Wer weiß, ob des Vogels Flug
bestehen bleibt, wenn Du ihn verletzt, 
und vielleicht überleben die Blumen
die Liebkosungen in uns, in ihrem Boden.

Es ist nicht die Geste, die dauert
jedoch, sie kleidet Dich erneut in Harnisch, 
golden von der Brust bis zu den Knien,
und die Schlacht war so rein
Dass ein Engel sie nach Dir trug.

Rainer Maria Rilke (übersetzt von Daniel Stein)

Image: Rilke, 1900

Rilke on Gaga

Lady Gaga (6216738190)

So, let's talk about Lady Gaga. She has a German poem tattooed on her Iggy Pop-side arm (which is the left one) and it goes like this (line break follows tattoo calligraphy):

Prüfen Sie, ob er in der tiefsten Stelle Ihres
Herzens seine Wurzeln ausstreckt, gestehen
Sie sich ein, ob Sie sterben müßten, wenn es Ihnen
versagt würde zu schreiben. Muss ich schreiben?

It is by Austrian poetrist Rainer Maria Rilke and the tattoo-studio Three Tides in Osaka, Japan.

My favorite blog for applicated poetry Doktor Fausti Weheklag und Höllenfahrt posted an article on this tattoo, this poem, this writer and Lady Gaga, German magazine Titanic, Sister Act, mistranslations and some other corresponding topics.

Doktor Fausti Weheklag und Höllenfahrt: Wenn es Ihnen versagt würde to translate

Image by English: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lions, cats, buffaloes, flies and orang-utans

Natural languaes (and some planned languages as well) bring forth strange flowers from time to time. For example, in many languages there exist sentences that are built of the same word or syllable all over. Let's call it a "repetion play" and take a closer look:


The following is a Chinese poem that tells the story of a poet who is craving for lion flesh while living in a cavern. This is an incredible example of those repetition plays and only possible due to the Chinese distinguishment of word by tone pitch. The following table shows the poem in Traditional Chinese, in Pinyin transliteration and as a translation, on the Wikipedia page you can also hear a native speaker reading it out.












« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o'clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.


In contrast, the Japanese example works not due to same syllables with different pitch but with different ways to read the same Kanji . There is a story around this sentence and the scholar Ono no Takamura meeting the emperor Saga Tennō. Here you can see the sentence as a seemingly meaningless repetition of the Kanji, the way to pronounce it correctly next to the way to write it normally as well as the translation.

子子子子子子子子子子子子 neko no ko no koneko, shishi no ko no kojishi (猫の子の子猫、獅子の子の子獅子) The young of cat, kitten, and the young of lion, cub.


My favorite blog on nerdy things io9 came up with this some days ago with the english-centric title The most confusing sentence in the world uses just one word. But I have to admit: It is really confusing. Here, neither graphemes nor sounds are the source of confusion, but classical homonymy, i.e. the same word bears several meanings. This special sentence has its own website hosted by its inventor, linguist William J. Rapaport from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a complete history, many examples and discussions. Here you see the sentence, a (shortened) parse tree visualization of its parts of speech and a "translation" to understand the somewhat constructed meaning.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Buffalo sentence 1 parse tree.svg Buffalo who live in Buffalo, and who are buffaloed (in a way unique to Buffalo) by other buffalo from Buffalo, themselves buffalo (in the way unique to Buffalo) still other buffalo from Buffalo.


In most cases, German needs a small introduction in order to get a repetition play working, as in "Wenn Fliegen hinter Fliegen fliegen fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach." which means thas flies flying behind other flies are flying behind other flies. But I have also found an example that comes without other words and makes also use of the homonymy. The content, however, is even weirder than in the English example...

Weichen Weichen weichen Weichen, weichen Weichen weichen Weichen Weichen [V] Weichen [S] weichen [Adj] Weichen [S], weichen [V] Weichen [S] weichen [Adj] Weichen [S]. If switch points avoid soft switch points, than  switch points avoid soft switch points.

I invented such a repetition play by myself. It is based on the nesting of clauses and the use of similar light verbs, so it is a bit different from the others:

Der Mann, der die Aufsicht über den Bau der Brücke, die über den Fluss, der stets kaltes Wasser führte, führte, führte, führte ein aufregendes Leben. [Aufsicht führen], [über einen Fluss führen], [kaltes Wasser führen], [ein aufregendes Leben führen] The man, who leads the construction of the bridge that is going over the river that conducts cold water, has an exciting life.


Ook! is a so called esoteric programming language and is a derivate of another one called (rightly) brainfuck. As programming languages can be understand as planned languages and as Ook! was designed in order to be understood at least by orang-utans I think it is only fair to consider it here. I present an example code to write the famous "Hello World" program next to the basic programming cocepts and the omitted output:

Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook. Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook.
  • Ook. Ook?
    Move the Memory Pointer to the next array cell.
  • Ook? Ook.
    Move the Memory Pointer to the previous array cell.
  • Ook. Ook.
    Increment the array cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer.
  • Ook! Ook!
    Decrement the array cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer.
  • Ook. Ook!
    Read a character from STDIN and put its ASCII value into the cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer.
  • Ook! Ook.
    Print the character with ASCII value equal to the value in the cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer.
  • Ook! Ook?
    Move to the command following the matching Ook? Ook! if the value in the cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer is zero. Note that Ook! Ook? and Ook? Ook! commands nest like pairs of parentheses, and matching pairs are defined in the same way as for parentheses.
  • Ook? Ook!
    Move to the command following the matching Ook! Ook? if the value in the cell pointed at by the Memory Pointer is non-zero.
Hello World

One question remains: Why are so many animals involved in this...?

Image Credits:
"Buffalo sentence 1 parse tree" by Johndburger (SVG by King of Hearts) - w:Image:Buffalo sentence 1 parse tree.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Almost all examples are extracted from Wikipedia and I have placed the respective links in the text before.