Teeter-totters, tetherball and tongue twisters: Linguistics on the playground

Illustration of a child proudly rattling off tongue twisters while others stare at her in awe
Aishwarya Jayadeep/File

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We were young. We were unaware of the value behind each word. We were simply trying to make a name for ourselves.

The chosen few who mastered the toughest tongue twisters earned playground glory. Those of us who stumbled on our words sat in sorrow, watching from the shadows of the new kids on the playground. But who knew there was much more to Peter Piper’s pick or the woodchuck’s chucking?

The linguistics of tongue twisters can offer insight into the benefits that accompanied them. Linguistics is the study of language, with a particular focus on its structure, phonetics and overall nature. Let’s take a look at one of the tongue twisters we remember most dearly.

Tracing Peter Piper’s Pick

One of the most common tongue twisters is that of Peter Piper. If you’ve forgotten that playground proverb by now, no need to worry. Here’s a reminder: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers? If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”

This tongue twister can be divided into three units: The first establishes a claim; the second offers a question to the validity of that claim; the third adds a conditional situation to the question posed in the second unit. Having identified the units of the tongue twister, we can understand its functions on a structural level.

Though this tongue twister questions its self-established claim that “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper,” confirming that claim isn’t what makes our tongue twist. It’s the successive use of two vowels and overwhelming alliteration that makes our speech stumble. With the recurring visual and phonetic presence of “e,” “i” and “p,” we are too distracted to even consider where Peter Piper’s pickled peppers were put after being picked.

Apart from earning bragging rights, our younger selves were earning skills that would come in handy nearly a decade later. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the hours practicing tongue twisters improved our pronunciations and the fluency of our speaking. Even before we knew what it was, those tongue twisters gave us an introduction to key terms for the multiple close readings we’d be doing in our R1A class.

Whether or not you were one of the chosen few who could splurge fluent speech on tongue twisters, you nevertheless benefited from the stumbling along the way.

Bryan Hernandez Benitez is an opinion copy chief. Contact him at [email protected].