If You Can Correctly Pronounce Every Word in This 1920s Poem, You’re Among the English-Speaking Elite
By Emily Petsko
English is a tricky language to learn. Native speakers may take this for granted, failing to realize how intricate—and inconsistent—many of its pronunciation rules are. For instance, why do heart, beard, and heard all sound different? What about rounded and wounded, or grieve and sieve?
As The Poke points out, a poem written in 1920 perfectly encapsulates the baffling nature of English. In fact, it's so tricky that even native English speakers with college degrees may struggle to get through it without botching a word. Titled The Chaos, the poem was penned by Dutch writer, traveler, and educator named Gerard Nolst Trenité.
It starts out easy, then gets progressively harder. Here are the first eight lines:
Dearest creature in creation, Study English pronunciation. I will teach you in my verse Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse. I will keep you, Suzy, busy, Make your head with heat grow dizzy. Tear in eye, your dress will tear. So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Although the first version of the poem had 146 lines, The English Spelling Society published an extended version with 274 lines in the 1990s (which you can read in full in the following PDF). According to the society, the poem first appeared in a language exercise book Nolst Trenité wrote, titled Drop Your Foreign Accent. He had spent some time working as a private teacher in California, teaching the sons of the Dutch Consul-General.
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The complete version contains about 800 examples of irregular spelling and pronunciation, and although the poem is meant to be read with British English pronunciations in mind, it doesn't make much difference if you're reciting it with a North American accent.
Keep in mind, though, that some of the words haven't stood the test of time. "The selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations," the society states. "Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today's readers (how many will know what a 'studding-sail' is, or that its nautical pronunciation is 'stunsail'?), and not every rhyme will immediately 'click' ('grits' for 'groats'?); but the overwhelming bulk of the poem represents as valid an indictment of the chaos of English spelling as it ever did."
If you aren't sure how to pronounce some of the more obscure words, follow along with the video below from YouTuber Lindybeig, which features an abridged version of the poem.
[h/t The Poke]