Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

What Makes Our Tongues Twist?: Computational Analysis of Croatian Tongue-Twisters

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

What Makes Our Tongues Twist?: Computational Analysis of Croatian Tongue-Twisters

Article excerpt

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Introductory Remarks

Tongue-twisters, a highly recognizable folklore genre in many cultures, are seldom systematically studied from the point of view of their linguistic structure. This statement is generally true if we consider the folkloristic literature, but there are a number of studies where tongue-twisters were used for testing speech-error mechanisms. one approach examines the use of tongue-twisters as a means of understanding the process of phonological encoding (e.g., kupin 1982; levitt and healy 1985; Dell and repka 1992; Wilshire 1999), and another aims to better understand neurological processes pertaining to aphasia and apraxia (e.g., noll 1978; Wilshire 1994; laPointe 2010). tongue-twisters are also explored in studies of childhood language acquisition (cf. Fernandez-Fein and baker 1997). The overlapping of linguistics and folkloristics in this matter is emphasized by Alan Dundes, who notes that tongue-twisters should be of interest to linguists because they represent the folk's own judgment as to which phonemes or phoneme clusters are particularly difficult to articulate (1964:117-8).

In croatian folkloristics, the rhetorical genres of counting-out rhymes, tonguetwisters, charms, curses, and blessings were not given theoretical prominence until the 1960s, as noted by Josip kekez (1998:160).1 At the time, the genres of verbal folklore were classified using literature as a model.2 insisting on this analogy led to the problem of classifying certain verbal folklore forms that clearly do not conform to the classic triadic system of literary classification (poetry, fiction, and drama). Therefore, methods devised for standard literary research are inadequate and an interdisciplinary approach is required. to study oral rhetorical genres from a folkloristic perspective, one must apply different approaches, such as those from speech-act theory, rhetorical criticism, and the analysis of phonostylistic apparatus, in order to draw useful conclusions about their nature, structure, and function. in this study, we focus primarily on the phonological aspects of croatian tongue-twisters, with preliminary conclusions based on the computational analysis of the phonostylistics of 100 of these tonguetwisters.

Tongue-Twisters as a Rhetorical Folklore Genre

In extant definitions of the tongue-twister, scholars from different theoretical backgrounds share certain keywords, including children's literature/folklore, competition, and nonsense verse (e.g., kekez 1996, 1998; Green 1997; cuddon 1999; tucker 2008). This situates the tongue-twister in the same class of literary genres as nursery rhymes and counting-out rhymes, despite the terminological diversity used in naming that class. The term oral rhetorical genres (for naming this group) was introduced in croatian folkloristics by nikola bonifacic rozin (1963) and tvrtko Cubelic (1970). The term was further affirmed by works of Josip kekez (1996, 1998), and Stipe botica's systematization of croatian oral literature in Hrvatska usmenoknjizevna citanka (The reader of croatian oral literature) (botica 1995).

All definitions of tongue-twisters agree on one thing: their key feature is difficult pronunciation, especially in fast reproduction. Several elements contribute to this "tongue-twisting," such as alliteration and assonance. Frequently, a mistake in verbal reproduction leads to the pronunciation of improper or taboo words.3 experimental research shows that phoneme frequency and similarity in utterance (i.e., alliteration and assonance) induce the likelihood of speech errors (levitt and healy 1985); consequently, these aspects should be examined more closely in the study of tonguetwisters.

The phonological structure of croatian tongue-twisters has never been systematically analyzed. There are only general remarks about their acoustic and rhythmic qualities in the scholarly literature, and these do not attempt to define objective features of the genre. …

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