In 1920, Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité, also known as Charivarius, published a textbook called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. In the appendix, he included a poem titled “The Chaos,” a virtuoso, tongue-twisting demonstration of somewhere around 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. No one now remembers the textbook, and the poem might have disappeared too were it not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of it through “France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.”
The poem’s history, as told in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it traveled around Europe, in pieces, confounding and bedeviling aspiring English speakers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sounded the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stanzas may be the most clever and comprehensive “concordance of cacographic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by linguists and historians of English, it has, since its 1994 republication, become something of a cult hit for enthusiasts of language everywhere.
You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindybeige, and see a transcription into IPA, the international phonetic alphabet. Though it’s popularly represented as a kind of sorting mechanism for “the English-Speaking Elite,” that’s hardly accurate. English once sounded like this and this, then like this, and now sounds completely different according to hundreds of regional dialects and accents around the world. The society gestures toward this in their introduction, writing, “the selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s readers.”
“How many will know what a ‘studding-sail’ is, or that its nautical pronunciation is ‘stunsail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems reasonable to wonder how many people ever did. In any case, English, Lindybeige writes, “is a rapidly-changing language,” and one that has not made much phonetic sense for several centuries. This is exactly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both English language learners and native speakers. Try your hand at reading every word in “The Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.