Why can't you say 'toy boat' three times fast?

A cartoon picture of a boy sailing in a paper boat across a paper map.
Our tongues are essential for articulation. Natalia Crespo / Getty Images

Say "toy boat" three times fast. Did you quickly find that you can't articulate the two words correctly more than once or twice? After that, the words degrade, right? If you can say "toy boat" three times fast correctly, you're in the minority. Try saying it ten times fast. Despite your best effort, the words seem to fall apart in your mouth. "Toy boat" becomes "tie boyte" or some similar perversion of the intended words.

"Toy boat" and other tongue twisters reveal an interesting phenomenon. Tongue twisters are universal -- every language has them, although they differ from language to language. But why do people have this problem?


Science is still working toward a full understanding of the exact cognitive process by which we speak, but what researchers have concluded is that numerous regions of the brain are responsible for the process of speech production. If any one of these functions becomes impaired or doesn't develop properly, your speech can be affected.

When you read the first sentence of this article, you understood a command to say "toy boat" three times in rapid succession. One region of your brain read the words and formulated the command. You then made the decision whether or not to follow the command. If you chose to follow it, another region of your brain understood the written words and began the process of speaking the words you read.

This process is no small matter. Your diaphragm has to produce the proper amount of pressure to form the word. Your vocal cords relax or contract, depending on the words. And then there's your tongue. Signals from your brain tell your tongue what to do based on what you've learned during your cognitive development of speech.

When it comes to articulating speech, the tongue is the tool for accuracy. This organ has a variety of movements in its repertoire, like pressing against the back of your top front teeth when you make a /t/ sound. Notice that your tongue pulls away the moment the /t/ sound has been completed. Try keeping your tongue pressed against the back of your front teeth while you make a /t/ sound. It won't do it. Your tongue is a very precise instrument, and a variety of factors are involved in its movements to influence our speech.

Try talking without moving your tongue. For the most part, you can make your tongue lie dormant when you talk, but the words come out as guttural sounds that barely resemble what you intend to say. Without your tongue, the sounds you make are like roughly cut marble blocks. Your tongue ultimately carves and polishes these sounds into words.But as agile as it is, your tongue has its limitations. Which leads us to the question, is it your tongue or your brain that is actually responsible for our inability to articulate tongue twisters? And exactly why can't you say "toy boat" three times fast, regardless of which is responsible? Find out on the next page.





Tongue-tie or Brain Glitch?

The findings of a study that show we stumble over tongue twisters while reading silently as we do in speech suggests that phonology play a role in reading comprehension.
David Silverman/Getty Images

Your tongue is connected to the floor of your mouth by a vertical piece of tissue called the lingual fraenulum. In some people the lingual fraenulum is too short, and this condition causes speech impediments. This can be corrected through a specific surgery which clips the tissue, allowing for freer movement of the tongue, and more ease of articulation.

This condition raises the question: Is it the tongue that is responsible for our inability to say tongue twisters like "toy boat" three times fast? Is the lingual fraenulum too restrictive to allow for such rapid movement? Or is it a glitch in our brains that accounts for the phenomenon of tongue twisters?


This question has gone unresolved for many years, but some studies point to the brain as the culprit. Evidence to support this came first from a 1982 experiment conducted by researchers Ralph Haber and Lyn Haber. In their experiment, college-age test subjects silently read sentences containing tongue twisters. Sentences that were similar in complexity, but which did not contain tongue twisters, were used as a control.

Interestingly, the Habers found that it took longer for the subjects to silently read sentences featuring tongue-twisters than it did sentences that did not contain them. What's important about the findings is that if our tongues are to blame, then we should have no problem silently reading sentences with tongue twisters. We should be able to read "She sells seashells by the sea shore," just as quickly as "Marilyn peddles shells at the beach." The fact that we don't read tongue-twister sentences as quickly suggests that the brain is the culprit for our troubles with similar-sounding sentences.

The findings indicate that phonology -- the rhythmic patterns we assign to speech that includes things like stress and inflection -- plays a major role not only in the way we say words, but also how we process them while reading. When we read, one of the ways we sort them into comprehensible packages is by the arrangement of the sounds, or phonemes. In "toy boat" the /t/ sound is a phoneme, so is the /oy/, /b/ and long /o/.

It is phonology, too, that is responsible for our inability to articulate tongue twisters. If you listen to yourself while you say "toy boat" three times fast, you'll notice that, while the /b/ and /t/ sounds remain intact, the vowels become distorted. Usually by the third or so time you repeat "toy boat" quickly it ends up becoming just a collision of the consonants involved -- "tuh-but" or some similar sounds.

When we're presented with phonemes strung together in difficult arrangements -- such as the /oy/ leading to /b/ when repeating "toy boat" -- our tendency to rely in part on phonology may be what trips us up, especially when coupled with the request to articulate the words in a rapid-fire manner.

It's also possible that your tongue simply isn't capable of performing the articulation of "toy boat" quickly. /Oy/ is tricky to say before a /b/. To make the /oy/ sound, the middle your tongue contacts the top of your palate. For the /b/ sound, your tongue must return to its resting place at the floor of your mouth, and your lips must part. This difficult movement -- especially in quick succession -- could also account for this particular tongue twister.

Regardless of whether it's a physical or a cognitive error that is responsible for tongue twisters, don't feel too badly about not being able to say "toy boat" three times fast. You're most likely still a very good speaker. If you're an average person, you make only about one error for every thousand words you say [source: Moller, et al.]. Although all those times you tried to say "toy boat" while reading this article probably hurt your average.

For more information on speech and other related topics, visit the next page.


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