Monday, January 31, 2011

The Tibetan Memory Trick

Remember The Great Panjandrum? Today I reconnected with a similar example of "marvelous nonsense" in the English language. It has been so many years since I last heard it that I had forgotten all about it. Then, while ransacking the internet in search of one of my favorite tongue-twisters, which was right on the tip of... well, you know... I unexpectedly found this:

The Tibetan Memory Trick
  • One hen.
  • Two ducks.
  • Three squawking geese.
  • Four Limerick oysters.
  • Five corpulent porpoises.
  • Six pairs of Don Alfonso's tweezers.
  • Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array.
  • Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sepulchers of Egypt.
  • Nine apathetic sympathetic diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth.
  • Ten lyrical spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who haul sail around the corner of the quay of the cove all at the same time.
There are many variants of this, which have come down through oral tradition from unknown origins. Since at least the 1940s, one version of it has been used as an "announcer's test" to gauge a prospective radio presenter's nimbleness of tongue. It makes a great vocal warmup and diction exercise. Another version has been passed down through generations of Boy Scouts as a "repeat after me" game, in which you start by repeating the first line, then the first two lines, then the first three, and so on until you (try to) rattle off all ten items in one staccato rush. Some folks have even added an eleventh verse that has something to do with the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, an homage to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe trilogy. There are several videos on Youtube of people performing versions of the TMT, e.g. here and here.

Why do I think this is great? Well, I like language. I like the feel of words rolling off the tongue, sparking a chaotic series of bizarre mental images. I like the bundling-together of tongue-twister, memory game, and orally transmitted folklore in one irreverently goofy package. And I like the excuse to mention what I believe may be the most excruciating tongue-twister in the English language: "The sea seetheth, then ceaseth, and thus sufficeth us." Forget about saying it fast three times in a row; I can't even say it once without the word "thesis" somehow finding its way in there!

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