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What if I could show you how crazy English is in one poem?
I’m serious. An English poem is all it takes to show you how crazy English is.
Us language learners can have the bad habit of fearing our target language, even if just a little bit. Everything’s new, and it can be overwhelming
But what about all the complications we’ve already gotten used to?
Perhaps a refresher of how much effort a language we already know requires can make us look differently at our target language.
The English Poem That Shows You How Tricky English Is
I am going to show you a funny video. It is entirely in English and is very simply just me reciting a poem.
But this is no ordinary poem! It was written by Gerard Nolst Trenité in 1922. The original title was “The Chaos”. I changed some parts of it to make it truer to me, but most of it is still the same.
The point of the poem is to demonstrate the weird spelling convention that English follows. It is incredibly difficult to read without practising it a lot in advance!
When I was an English teacher, I used to offer the best students in my classes €100 if they could read the entire thing without slipping up.
Considering that I couldn't even do this myself, I knew that the money was safe! (I slip up once in the video even this time. And I probably pronounce one or two words wrong.)
This poem is generally used to prove that English is the “hardest language in the world”. I shit you not: as I always say every language makes this claim. In a very similar way, the Shi Shi poem is used to “prove” Chinese's impossibility. Myth Busted), though.
I've decided to hijack any searches people make for this poem and add some humour to a normally dull and discouraging concept. And then add some encouragement of my own at the end!
To make the video more interesting, I've included the corresponding pronunciation in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Here’s an image with the start and finish of the poem. You can download it and practice them!
But if you feel brave enough to take on the whole thing…
The Full Crazy English Poem “The Chaos”, Edited by Me
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.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard, Dies and diet, lord and word, Sword and sward, retain and Britain. (Mind the latter, how it's written.) Now I surely will not plague you With such words as plaque and ague. But be careful how you speak: Say break and steak, but bleak and streak; Cloven, oven, how and low, Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery, Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore, Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles, Exiles, similes, and reviles; Scholar, vicar, and cigar, Solar, mica, war and far; One, anemone, Balmoral, Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel; Gertrude, German, wind and mind, Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet, Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet. Blood and flood are not like food, Nor is mould like should and would. Viscous, viscount, load and broad, Toward, to forward, to reward. And your pronunciation's OK When you correctly say croquet, Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve, Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour And enamour rhyme with hammer. River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb, Doll and roll and some and home. Stranger does not rhyme with anger, Neither does devour with clangour. Souls but foul, haunt but aunt, Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant, Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger, And then singer, ginger, linger, Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge, Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very, Nor does fury sound like bury. Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth. Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath. Though the differences seem little, We say actual but victual. Refer does not rhyme with deafer. Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer. Mint, pint, senate and sedate; Dull, bull, and George ate late. Scenic, Arabic, Pacific, Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven, Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven. We say hallowed, but allowed, People, leopard, towed, but vowed. Mark the differences, moreover, Between mover, cover, clover; Leeches, breeches, wise, precise, Chalice, but police and lice; Camel, constable, unstable, Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal, Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal. Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair, Senator, spectator, mayor. Tour, but our and succour, four. Gas, alas, and Arkansas. Sea, idea, Korea, area, Psalm, Maria, but malaria. Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean. Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian, Dandelion and battalion. Sally with ally, yea, ye, Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key. Say aver, but ever, fever, Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver. Heron, granary, canary. Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface. Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass. Large, but target, gin, give, verging, Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging. Ear, but earn and wear and tear Do not rhyme with here but ere. Seven is right, but so is even, Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen, Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk, Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation — think of Psyche! Is a paling stout and spikey? Won't it make you lose your wits, Writing groats and saying grits? It's a dark abyss or tunnel: Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale, Islington and Isle of Wight, Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough — Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough? Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!!!*
*Disclaimer: My advice is actually to never give up!! 😉
Practice Your English With This Poem
Here’s a challenge…
Learn the poem, practice pronouncing it, and realize how English is actually more complicated than you thought. And how your target language looks simpler.
I’d love to see if you could have snatched those $100 😉