Why is it so hard to say "toy boat" three times fast?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark.

Chuck Bryant: Hi, Josh.

Josh Clark: Hi, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: I'm Chuck.

Josh Clark: Hey, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Hi, Josh.

Josh Clark: This could, arguably be the worst intro we've ever recorded, Chuck. What do you think?

Chuck Bryant: Maybe. But let's not do it again. I like this.

Josh Clark: No, let's get raw and fresh, baby. Okay. So Chuck, say toy boat three times fast, now.

Chuck Bryant: Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat.

Josh Clark: Actually that last one when you corrected yourself that was pretty good.

Chuck Bryant: But the point is you're not supposed to correct yourself.

Josh Clark: You want to hear me do it?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat. I can't do it.

Chuck Bryant: You just went into Tibet.

Josh Clark: Kind of.

Chuck Bryant: But Jeri, our producer, actually did it a few minutes ago when you were out of the room, doing your pushups like you do between podcasts.

Josh Clark: It gets me pumped, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: She did it on the first try.

Josh Clark: I know. Jeri does everything.

Chuck Bryant: She's like what's the big deal.

Josh Clark: Jeri does everything perfectly. But most people can't. I've never been able to say toy boat three times fast.

Chuck Bryant: It's a tongue twister.

Josh Clark: It is. That's exactly right. And did you know, Chuck, that it's assumed that tongue - see. Yeah, baby. Tongue twisters are universal.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, they are. I did not know that until we did a little research.

Josh Clark: All right. So you have some from foreign lands.

Chuck Bryant: I do.

Josh Clark: I want to hear some because I don't know any. I found a Chinese one, and there was actually like an MP3, maybe MP4, of this tongue twister. I was like I'm not going to the trouble of learning that.

Chuck Bryant: Well I will do my best. I have two Japanese tongue twisters.

Josh Clark: Nice.

Chuck Bryant: And their translation. So the first one is (Japanese).

Josh Clark: That is a tongue twister.

Chuck Bryant: It is.

Josh Clark: What does it mean?

Chuck Bryant: Translated loosely means take two sets of three frog croaks, add them together and they make six frog croaks.

Josh Clark: Beautiful.

Chuck Bryant: You like that?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And here's another one.

Josh Clark: That's just a word to the wise.

Chuck Bryant: It is. Words to the wise! I like that. Here's another one from Japan. It is (Japanese). And that means this nail is hard to pull out.

Josh Clark: Really?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Wow. So you can kind of see how maybe a tongue twister in Japanese doesn't really translate into a tongue twister in English.

Chuck Bryant: True. But she sells seashells down by the seashore, that's kind of silly too.

Josh Clark: It is. But this nail is hard to pull out, that's a statement.

Chuck Bryant: You're right.

Josh Clark: Seashells, seashells, see sells, she -

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Descending into silliness.

Josh Clark: So basically, Chuck, it's becoming increasingly apparent that as far as tongue twisters go, I have what you might call a phonological disorder.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Have you heard of these?

Chuck Bryant: I have.

Josh Clark: Okay. Well I'll tell everybody else about it. You just sit there quietly, okay?

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: So a phonological disorder is basically any time where you're developing in such a way that you aren't pronouncing certain phonemes. And a phoneme, if you'll remember correctly when we were back in second or third grade, there was Hooked on Phonics, remember? Hooked on Phonics worked for me!

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So instead of a phonic, it's actually called a phoneme, technically. But it's the same thing, like bu, oy, boy.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Right? Those are two phonemes, two separate phonemes. And they're the way we pronounce words. And we learn how to pronounce different words phonetically. That's how we learn to read, usually. And that's also how we learn to communicate. Now if that development doesn't happen properly, you can end up with a phonological disorder.

Chuck Bryant: Is that a speech impediment?

Josh Clark: Yeah, that's another way to put it. But a speech impediment could also include stuttering, which is not a -

Chuck Bryant: True.

Josh Clark: A phonological disorder. It's actually extraneous. This is specifically with the pronunciation of a phoneme, right.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So let's say you didn't really get the gu sound, you're going to have that apostrophe after the n in an I-N-G, like nothin' or somethin', right?

Chuck Bryant: True.

Josh Clark: And that's actually a sign you may have a phonological disorder when you leave them off at the end, especially or when you substitute one for another.

Chuck Bryant: Right, Sarah Palin.

Josh Clark: Give me an example.

Chuck Bryant: Well there was just kind of the common joke was that she never pronounced anything with a G on the end of it.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: But I think that was just more colloquial.

Josh Clark: I think so too, and I think it was very, very well studied colloquialisms.

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So the phonological disorder thing, apparently anywhere from seven to ten percent of five year olds have one.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. And it can be really like leaving the G off the end of a word is kind of mild. Or it can be incredibly severe, where no one understands a word you're saying, including your family.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Like you're essentially not making sense. Even though you know what you want to say, no one can understand you, so therefore, what's the point of communicating?

Chuck Bryant: So that's severe, not like when you hear a little kid say my shoulder hurts, that type of thing.

Josh Clark: Well actually, that's part of development too. That's either they have a phonological disorder or they're still working out the kinks.

Chuck Bryant: Or their shoulder hurts.

Josh Clark: Exactly. And there's two causes for phonological disorders, right? Well actually there's three. The third one is just beyond cryptic. The first one is structural, where your brain isn't structurally developed in the normal way and therefore, there's something missing. Some neurons aren't connecting. There's something that's structurally different about your brain that's going to keep you from being able to say certain phonemes.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: The other is neurological, where your nervous system isn't finely tuned quite enough to be able to get the really polished phonemes, like Zha, like a ZH sound or something like that.

Chuck Bryant: So you'd have trouble speaking French, I would say.

Josh Clark: Probably. And the third one just scares me. It's a phonological disorder of indeterminate origin. Basically we have no idea.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: And the reason we have no idea is because we aren't entirely certain how we speak, how we hear, how we speak.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: We don't know. Did you know that?

Chuck Bryant: I did not know that.

Josh Clark: Well give me something you got.

Chuck Bryant: Well I thought you were going to talk about the tongue.

Josh Clark: Oh yeah. We'll get to the tongue.

Chuck Bryant: Is now a good time?

Josh Clark: I think now is a great time.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. Well the tongue is, as everyone knows, very important to your speech.

Josh Clark: And taste.

Chuck Bryant: And taste, obviously. The tongue is connected to the base of your mouth by a piece of tissue, a vertical piece of tissue.

Josh Clark: Yeah, what's it called? Everyone wants to know that and now we know.

Chuck Bryant: That's called the lingual frenulum. Is that how you would pronounce it?

Josh Clark: I guess.

Chuck Bryant: I know we constantly butcher pronunciations. I feel bad for it.

Josh Clark: The lingual frenulum. That's what I went with.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. I like that.

Josh Clark: Thanks.

Chuck Bryant: And that's what that little thing is called. If yours is too short, you may get a speech impediment because of that.

Josh Clark: Because your tongue has to have a certain amount of movement to be able to carry out, to produce these phonemes, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. But you can have it correct. There are actually surgeries to -

Josh Clark: Yeah, a little bit of snip.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, a snip here and a tuck there.

Josh Clark: You might as well talk about putting bamboo shoots under your fingernails when I think of snipping the lingual frenulum.

Chuck Bryant: I know. Yeah, that's bad. So yeah, the tongue has a lot to do with how you pronounce things. And so -

Josh Clark: It has everything to do with it.

Chuck Bryant: So if you have problems with the frenulum there, then you're going to have some issues with your speech.

Josh Clark: And I imagine there's probably an opposite disorder to where you're maybe lacking a lingual frenulum and your tongue just kind of lolls around in your mouth.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Maybe you have very little control over it. I would think that would produce a speed impediment, as well.

Chuck Bryant: But you just made that up, right?

Josh Clark: I did. But you know that somebody somewhere out there has that problem.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And if you do, send us an e-mail.

Chuck Bryant: Thanks for tuning in.

Josh Clark: Okay, Chuckers, you want to get back to the brain part?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Because really, your tongue's not doing anything on its own. It's obeying your brain.

Chuck Bryant: True. So it all comes back to the brain, essentially.

Josh Clark: It always does. So there's this guy who, in the 1960s, his name is Al Lieberman. I think he was a Yalie. And he came up with this thing called the motor theory of speech perception.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: And basically this theory said that to produce speech, we use the same areas of the brain that we use to hear, to listen, right?

Chuck Bryant: Is it like a mimicking type of thing?

Josh Clark: Basically what this guy's point was is that when we hear something, we hear it like we're speaking it.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: Maybe we cut it into phonemes. But it's basically the reverse process.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which actually, a lot of people bought into for many, many years. And then it kind of fell out of favor in the 80s, right!

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But then almost as soon as it fell out of favor, some studies started coming around that actually supported it. And now it's gaining strength again, especially since the advent of the MRI.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But do you want to tell them about that 1982 study that really kind of suggests that we do hear the same way we speak?

Chuck Bryant: Right, the Haber and Haber study. Is that what they call it?

Josh Clark: Yeah. I can't figure out if they're brother and sister. I assume they're probably husband and wife, Ralph and Lynn.

Chuck Bryant: Ralph and Lynn Haber.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. They did some research and what they did was they got some college aged subjects and had them silently read sentences that had tongue twisters.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: And then they also had a control group who - I'm sorry, the control group was a different sentence that did not have tongue twisters.

Josh Clark: Right, just a regular sentence, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. So they found out that it took longer to read, to silently read the tongue twisters than it did for the sentences that did not contain them.

Josh Clark: Right. These were all fully developed college age test subjects.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So if we aren't using the same process in reverse, we shouldn't have any trouble silently reading a tongue twister.

Chuck Bryant: Correct.

Josh Clark: But it suggests that we read by breaking things up into phonemes, just like we do when we're speaking, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which would suggest that the motor theory of speech is correct?

Chuck Bryant: Right, which I agree with because I looked up some cool tongue twisters. And I have to read them slower in my head, just like I would when I say them.

Josh Clark: Right, like what?

Chuck Bryant: Well there's one. I believe it holds the Guinness record for being - and I can barely get through this one - for being the most difficult tongue twister. And that is -

Josh Clark: How do you quantify that into a world record?

Chuck Bryant: I don't know. Well, we'll have to ask Guinness about that. It is the sixth sick sheets six sheeps sick. I can hardly get through that. So the sixth six - I can't even say it.

Josh Clark: Can I try?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's at the top there.

Josh Clark: Okay. The sixth sick sheiks sixth sheeps sick.

Chuck Bryant: Man, that's pretty good.

Josh Clark: Thank you. I just overcame the world record holder for toughest tongue twister.

Chuck Bryant: That's impressive.

Josh Clark: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Chuck Bryant: And there's also something called spoonerisms. Did you look into that?

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: Spoonerism is when there's a transposition. It's usually an initial sound of two or more words. So for instance, tons of soil versus sons of toil, that's a spoonerism. And it's actually a lot of times they're designed - people make up a spoonerism that will get you to say a curse word by accident.

Josh Clark: Like I see you pee.

Chuck Bryant: No, not exactly, more like I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm the pheasant plucker's mate and I'm only plucking pheasants 'cause the pheasant plucker's late. So if someone -

Josh Clark: I gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: Said it fast enough, they might accidentally say a bad word.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: That's a spoonerism.

Josh Clark: We'll have to try that later once it's off, the recording button is off.

Chuck Bryant: And interestingly, I also found out there are also sign language twisters and they call those finger fumblers.

Josh Clark: Wow.

Chuck Bryant: How about that? I didn't tell you that one.

Josh Clark: So that's a sign language spoonerism?

Chuck Bryant: A sign language tongue twister and I did not find any. I tried to research and find some. So if anyone out there knows of any sign language finger fumblers, we'd love to hear about it.

Josh Clark: That's pretty interesting. Actually, that kind of leads us back to the whole toy boat thing.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: As it turns out, there's no definitive answer for why it's tough for us to say toy boat, right, whether it's physical, like the tongue can't move fast enough.

Chuck Bryant: You said it funny in saying it one time.

Josh Clark: Toy boat. Yeah, I'm from Ohio and sometimes you can hear that every once in a while.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: So we don't know if it's physical, like the tongue is just incapable.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: We found a couple of phonemes that we can string together that the tongue doesn't move fast enough to say it three times fast, or if it's a brain glitch, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: If there are finger, what are they called?

Chuck Bryant: Finger fumbler.

Josh Clark: Finger fumblers, even though you're producing language, you're moving your fingers.

Chuck Bryant: True.

Josh Clark: So I would imagine you're using a different region of the brain for that.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Or maybe an additional region of the brain. So yeah, we can't say for certain whether it's the brain or the tongue that's responsible. And it could be the tongue. Think about it. Toy boat, right!

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Going from the Oy, like the tongue is at the bottom of your mouth, oy, to boat, your tongue has to go back up and kind of click on the sides a little on your molars.

Chuck Bryant: Right, true.

Josh Clark: That may just be something that it can't do very quickly.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Or it could be your motor system in your brain is not working correctly.

Chuck Bryant: Right. These things really frustrate me. I don't know if it's the little kid in me from class coming out, but anything like this or any time someone - you know the rub your stomach and pat your head, any of those physical things, basically where you trick your brain, I hate those.

Josh Clark: Do you? Why? You just can't do them?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it reduces me to, I feel like, to the single cell organism. I just can't work it out.

Josh Clark: Well don't feel too bad, Chuck, because I have one fast fact for you.

Chuck Bryant: What's that?

Josh Clark: That I think you're going to feel better about. The average speaker only makes about one error for every thousand words spoken.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: And I would say you're above average, so don't feel too bad.

Chuck Bryant: That I have more or below average?

Josh Clark: Below average. Well there's my one.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I think if you counted up the mistakes that I make in a podcast, it would be much higher than that. But I think that's a little different than normal speaking conversation.

Josh Clark: Okay.

Chuck Bryant: I feel the pressure.

Josh Clark: Well, if you guys out there want to see the word lingual frenulum, and by word, of course I mean words. There's two for me. You can type in, "Why can't you say toy boat," in our search bar at HowStuffWorks.com. But first, before we let you go, don't go anywhere yet because we have listener mail.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, Josh. We have listener mail.

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: This was just one piece of mail from our fan, Lila Feldman. And Lila is writing in about our, "What to do with a dead body" episode.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I love that one.

Chuck Bryant: She does too, but she had a little bit of a problem with it and so we're going to read this because I don't want people to think we just cherry pick the kudos to ourselves.

Josh Clark: No, we definitely don't.

Chuck Bryant: So she writes in and says that I was a little disappointed with the recent podcast because you didn't mention some older and more traditional ways of burial that could be considered green, which is a very good point. For instance, Jewish burial, traditionally someone was just wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground. And then that eventually evolved to a pine box. But that would have been an old school way to have a green burial, traditional Jewish burial.

Josh Clark: That makes sense.

Chuck Bryant: It does. And another method, which no one uses now days, was popular in Roman times until around the Turkish Empire, is to just bury the body as it is, in the ground, wait for the flesh to decompose and then dig out the bones. And then you usually put those bones in a catacombs or taken with the family when they were trying to escape a tyrant or go on vacation, they would take these bones.

Josh Clark: Or it works really good for a nice soup.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, a nice consommé.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: So that was from Lila Feldman and we appreciate Lila writing in. And I'm sure there were all sorts of ancient ways of dealing with dead bodies that we failed to consider. So we kind of had a modern take on it.

Josh Clark: Right. We just get so frantically caught up in the green movement that we just keep looking forward, looking forward, and no looking backwards.

Chuck Bryant: There's a lot of answers if you look back.

Josh Clark: And if you'd like to take Chuck and I to task, in a very puritanical manner, you can send an e-mail to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.