That sequence of words is recognizable to many English-speaking people. Most of us will have had a go at saying the famous tonguetwister out loud; enjoyed the slips and stumbles as we try to say it faster and faster. Some of us might have even questioned its origin – who sells seashells by the seashore? (It’s believed to be about Mary Anning, an early 18th Century scientist who collected fossils).
Tonguetwisters are fun. They’re weird and silly. They’re an odd language quirk that seem to appear in languages across the world. Sometimes they have historical roots (like Mary Anning’s seashells); sometimes they can be deliberately constructed to make the speaker say something rude: I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. (I sort of love that side of tonguetwisters too. There’s a cheekiness about them.) And sometimes tonguetwisters are just plain bizarre, full of weird imagery: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? (I don’t know, but now I’m picturing a small rodent throwing piles of sticks into the air…)
So, I had this idea to create an arts project based on international tonguetwisters. Seashells will be a video artwork where I perform a series of non-English tonguetwisters wearing costumes inspired by the imagery in the rhymes. As a musician I’m drawn to the rhythms and tempos that occur in tonguetwisters, and I’m hoping to exploit their musicality even more by not knowing the full language behind the selection of words I’m saying.
I’m currently working at North Edinburgh Arts (NEA) with community participants who have English as a second language. They’re teaching me their favourite tonguetwisters and I’m attempting to learn them. I’m also working in collaboration with brilliant costume designer Ali Brown who’ll design and make the costumes for the video. Ali and I have been attending the Knit ‘n’ Natter group at NEA. We’ve been bonding over knitting needles and creating weird bright pink wooly tongues for one of the costumes. And I’ve been working with people learning tonguetwisters in various languages including Kurdish, Bengali, Arabic and French.
Here’s my favourite tonguetwister that I’ve been taught so far:
Kolikatar Kakoli kakaki kohilo, kaka kaak keno kaka kore? (Bengali)
Kakoli from Kolkata asked her uncle, uncle why do crows make the kaka noise?
You can expect to see me struggling to say that in the Seashells video wearing a fully knitted crow costume!
I'm doing another drop-in session to learn more tongetwisters on Friday 23rd August at North Edinburgh Arts from 1pm-4pm.
Seashells is funded by the City of Edinburgh Council Culture Service Project Fund in partnership with the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and supported by Magnetic North.