This Phonetic Labyrinth

Throughout my entire teaching career, I have used this poem in my classes.  Since “pretiring,” I have continued to share it with all the colleagues I can.  It is a most amazing poem and has made my students understand the reality that English is inherently hard and therefore French isn’t actually any harder to learn.  I got this, I believe, in my sophomore year in college, maybe freshman, from a very dear French professor. 

My tact in using it is to have the students read the poem aloud until a mistake in pronunciation is made.  At that point, the next student takes over.  They are always amazed at how they have been tricked and/or how hard it really is, and how little they really know.  Granted, some of the words are a bit archaic and/or a bit “British” rather than American, but it really gets the idea across and is a great educational tool.

As far as I know, the author is unknown, I have printed it exactly as I received it just about forty years ago.


The following was written during World War II by a Dutchman whose knowledge of English was very extensive.  It was published in “Vrig Nederland,” a publication produced by Dutch refugees.  USIS Paris wishes to pay its respect to the writer and acknowledge its indebtedness to the unknown benefactor-author.

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, 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 and steak, but bleak and streak,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via, pipe, snipe, recipe, 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 from 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, block, brooch, ninth and plinth.

Billet does not sound like ballet;  bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;

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

Banquet gives no clue to parquet, which is said to rhyme with darky.

Viscous, viscount;  load and broad;  toward, to forward, to reward.

Your pronunciation’s okay when you say, correctly, croquet;

Rounded, wounded;  live and grieve;  friend and fiend;  alive and sleeve;

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

We say hallowed, but allowed;  people, leopard;  towed, but vowed.

Make the difference, moreover, ‘twixt mover, plover, and then Dover.

Leeches, breaches;  wise, precise;  chalice, but police and lice;

Camel, constable, unstable;  principle, disciple, label;

Petal, penal and canal;  wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal;

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

But it’s very hard to tell why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular;  goal;  iron;  timber, climber;  bullion, lion;

Worm and storm;  chaise, chaos, chair;  senator, spectator, mayor;

Ivy, privy;  famous;  clamour and enamour rhyme with hammer.

Pussy, hussy and possess.  Golf, wolf;  countenance;  lieutenants;

Hoist, in lieu of flagg, left pennants.  River, rival;  tomb, bomb, comb;

Doll and roll and some and home.  Stranger does not sound like anger.

Neither does devour like clangour.  Soul but foul, and gaunt but aunt;

Pont, front, wont;  want, grand and grant;  shoes, goes, does.  Now first say finger,

Then say singer, ginger, linger.  Real and zeal;  mauve, gauze and gauge;

Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.  Query does not rhyme with very

Nor does fury sound like bury.  Doest, lost, post;  doth, cloth and loth

Job, Job;  blossom, bosom;  oath.  Though the difference seems little.

We say actual but victual;  seat and sweat;  chaste, paste and caste;

Leigh and eight and freight and height;  put, nut;  granite and unite.

Feiffer does not rhyme with heifer, nor does reefer rhyme with zephyr.

Dull, bull;  Goeffrey, George;  ate, late;  hint, pint, senate and sedate.

Scenic, phrenic and pacific;  science, conscience, scientific;

Tour but our;  and succour, four;  Core provides a rhyme for door.

Gas, alas, and pass, and was–Dickens started off as “Boz.”

Sea, idea, guinea, area;  psalm and charm;  Maria, malaria;

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean;  doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Look but alien and Italian;  dandelion and battalion,

Sallied, allied;  yea and  ye–eye, I say, aye, why, hey, quay!

Say, over, but ever, fever, neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Never guess–it is not safe;  we say claves, valves, half, but Ralph.

Heron, granary, canary, crevice, and device, and eyrie;

Face, but preface and efface;  phlegm, phlegmatic;  ass, glass, bass;

Large, but tarter;  gin, give, verging.   Ought, out, joust and scour;  and urging.

Ear, but earn;  and wear and tear do not rhyme with here, but there.

Seven is right and so is even, hyphen, roughen, nephews, Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk;  asp, grasp, wasp;  and cork and work.

Tunnel surely rhymes with funnel?  Yes, it does– and so does gunwale.

Islington and Isle of Wight, Housewife, verdict and indict.

Aren’t you mived up, reader, rather, saying lather, bather, father?

Finally, what rhymes with tough?  Though, through, plough or cough?  Enough!

Hiccough has the sound of “cup”–

My advice is — “Give it up!”


One response to “This Phonetic Labyrinth

  1. And we thought French was hard to learn!!! Those who learn English as their second, third or fourth language are the ones who really deserve kudos!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s