Read these aloud: Tomb, bomb, comb. Now: Wallet, mallet, chalet.
One of the most annoying parts of learning English is memorising its endless inconsistencies in spelling and pronunciation. As a result of the language’s mélange of German, French, and Latin ancestry, words spelled almost exactly the same way are sometimes expected to be pronounced differently, while words spelled completely differently can sound the same. Eye, I, aye.
In the early 1900s, Dutch writer and educator Gerard Nolst Trenité recognised how annoying this was. He raged against all the frustrating rules that English-learners have to memorise in a poetic diatribe titled “The Chaos” (pdf). It was published in 1920, as part of an English-language exercise book he wrote called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen (English pronunciation exercises).
The rhyming-couplet poem went through four editions and was published in its longest form by the UK’s Spelling Society in the 1990s.
Here’s a sample. Read each slowly aloud for full effect:
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak…
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough,
Though The Chaos includes plenty of rare or now obsolete words and is meant to be read with British English pronunciations, its absurdity will resonate with any new or seasoned non-native speakers today. And for native English speakers from anywhere in the world, the poem offers a useful lesson in the unique burdens of the language.
Try reading the poem in full.