Corpse, Corps, Horse and Worse

In 1920, a Dutch writer named Gerard Nolst Trenité published a poem in English titled The Chaos, designed to draw attention to English spelling and pronunciation — and all the confusion its absurdities have let loose upon the world. It begins “Dearest creature in creation; Studying English pronunciation; I will teach you in my verse; Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse” and ends: “Hiccough has the sound of ‘cup’…. My advice is—give it up!”

“Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” the first book printed in English and the source of just some of the languages many irregularities

The absurdity of this poem works because, frankly, when it comes to English spelling and pronunciation, there is plenty of rhyme and very little reason. But what is the reason for that? Why among all European languages is English so uniquely chaotic today?

To help us answer that question, we spoke with linguist and longtime friend of the show, Arika Okrent, author of the new book Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language. In it, Arika explores the origins of those phonetic paradoxes, and it turns out some of the reasons for confusion are as counterintuitive as the words themselves.

  1. tammy kruger

    Corpse, corps…..Definitely was one of my favourite 99PI podcasts up to date! (now I know why I – as a Canadian – write “favourite” and not “favorite” LOL)
    Loved the history and plan to retell it to my kids at dinner tonight.
    Just to add to the fun, I now live in the beautiful country of Israel and speak Hebrew. Here they have some pretty funny pronunciations of English words that have entered Hebrew – notably, they pronounce the /p/ at the start of ‘psychology’ ‘psychometrics’ “psychiatry’ etc and the /t/ at the end of “ballet”. Perhaps because they taught in universities with Hebrew lecturers using English textbooks initially, and these words were read before heard…?
    Food for thought ;)
    Thanks again for a great podcast – I love listening and learning. Keep up the great work!

  2. Sean Redmond

    If you really want to know why English is the way it is (short spending 3 years in university), I highly recommend Kevin Stroud’s ‘History of the English Language’ podcast series.

    It starts way back with the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language and every fortnight he works his way forward. He’s at episode 152 at the moment and still only in the mid-1500s. Each episode is an hour long and while he gives information at a first year university level, he also explains in everyday language why things happens, gives lots of examples and frequently goes back over previously covered ground, because there is a lot of information here.

    Kevin’s story of the English language and all of the perverse turns it has taken has kept me company while I do the gardening at weekends, painting walls & shutters or even just lying on the beach soaking in the sun (when it was safe to fly to sunny climes).

    The website is here: but I listen to it via the podcast app on my iPod Touch.

  3. JS

    Can we mention for a second in this conversation that the amazing Sean Real has a first and last name that *should* rhyme based on the spelling but are both pronounced not rhyming with teal or meal, or with each other. Can they comment on this please?

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