Pronunciation. Or, why the English language can be confusing.

In Education, Humor on Sunday, 9 September 2012 at 06:21

This poem  illustrates why English Language Learners have difficulties with the English language.


“Hints on pronunciation for foreigners

By: Anonymous

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead-it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up–and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.

A dreadful language? Man alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five!

  1. I love this! Very well done! Did you learn English as a second language?

    • No, but I have an interst in ELL (English Language Learners) and found this when writing a paper on the topic. It is an OLD poem (original title “Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners” by Anonymous. On further inspection, I found the following (http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/susan/cyc/e/pronounc.htm#hints):

      * This [poem] has two different main attributions on the Web: the most common one is simply “TSW”, but George Bernard Shaw occurs in several places. I haven’t been able to track this down further myself, but other Webby people have helped with information.

      Jennifer Grist emailed me from France in Feb 2006, with the following:

      “The information given to me by an elderly french friend is that this poem appeared as a letter to the Sunday Times dated 3 January 1965 and has since been quoted in a work by Mackay and Thomson 1968.”

      Valentijn Sessink also emailed me in Feb 2006, from Holland, saying:

      “I found this gem of a poem in Keith Johnson’s An Introduction to Foreign Langauge [sic] Learning and Teaching. It’s attributed to T.S.W. (the author’s name is otherwise unknown) and is from a letter published in the London Sunday Times on January 3, 1965. As publishers usually try really hard to find the author’s information (for copyright reasons), I have reason to believe this is correct information.”

      Clearly many authors like to quote this poem. Amanda Ward , a special education teacher in Watauga County, North Carolina, emailed me in Dec 2006:

      “I came across this poem while reading a text called Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print by Marilyn Jager Adams (1990). She used this poem in her book as an example to ‘pithily summarize’ the significant problems with written English and the alphabetic principle for purposes of learning to read and write.”

      In that book it has the reference: “From a letter published in the London Sunday Times (January 3, 1965), cited by Chomsky (1970). Only the initials T.S.W. are known.”

      So, is anyone keen enough to track down that issue of the London Sunday Times? Particularly to get the original punctuation, which varies slightly from site to site.

      ** Like many other sites, I originally had the word “laugh” here. In Nov 2003 Melanie McKee kindly emailed to tell me:

      The word “laugh” is incorrect. The poem actually uses the word “lough”. Lough is pronounced lock, and is a lake or an arm of the sea. I suspect that many people copied it incorrectly and changed the “ou” to an “au” because they simply didn’t know what a lough was. But the real poem says “lough” which goes along with all the other “ough” words in the two lines.

      And the tale continues…

      In April 2010, Paul Valenzuela emailed me:

      i noticed a poem entitled “Hints on pronunciation for foreigners” and realized i have seen this poem before:
      in which you see a longer version of the poem with a book and page reference.

      The book/page reference given there is: “On page 480 of the second (1975) edition of his book, “Aspects of Language”, Dwight Bolinger cited a portion of this poem. He credits Richard Krogh as its author, but says no more about its origins.” I have the 1968 first edition, where it doesn’t seem to appear. Google Books show a portion on page 283 of the 1981 third edition, beginning at the line “Beware of heard…”. (In fact, the way the longer version is formatted at the Cupola site, it could well be two separate pieces, one about plurals, one about pronunciation.)

      Tracking the extra clue of “Richard Krogh”, via some blog posts, leads to: “Brush Up On Your English, with Hints on Pronunciation for visiting Foreigners, from the Manchester Guardian”, Spelling Progress Bulletin 1(1):20, 1961. This is a slight variant of the shorter version, credited “with appologies [sic] to T.S.W.”. Any advance on 1961?

      Note that the word given as laugh/lough ** above is given at the link as “slough”, pronounced “sluff”, except when it is capitalised, and hence the name of the town Slough, where that “ough” is appropriately pronounced like the cry of pain “ow” (or, less contentiously, where it rhymes with “how”, “now”, “bough”, “cow”)

      … and continues

      [13 Dec 2011] Steve Reed tells me of a different attribution:

      I have a copy of the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie (1993) ISBN: 0747513856. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. This volume reproduces the poem and credits the author as Herbert Farjeon.

      The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide is available through Google Books. Although the book credits Herbert Farjeon (1887–1945), it doesn’t provide any bibliographic information to allow further tracing.

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