In a Detroit nightclub sometime in 1946, the Four Dukes were singing: “Sarah, Sarah, sittin’ in the shoe shine shop. All day long she sits and shines; all day long she shines and sits . . .,” to the tune of the old popular song by Bob Carleton, “Ja-Da”. This much, as it were, may well have passed unnoticed. However, one surely does remember being taught as a child such phrases as: “A noise annoys an oyster, but a noisy noise annoys an oyster more”, or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers . . . .” They share an essential feature with the lyrics Rémy Dor’s title alludes to: All are examples of more or less well-known “tongue-twisters” (US “tongue-tanglers”), that is, phrases designed to be difficult to articulate properly, and what’s more, difficult to speak fast.
As Rémy Dor explains in a short introduction, tongue-twisters can be found in every natural language, and are generally named after one of the aforementioned characteristics. Antonin Perbosc, who collected a whole bunch of them in France by the end of the 19th century dubbed them virelangues, literally, “tongue-benders”. In Uzbek, they are called tez aytish, “to be pronounced fast”, whereas in other Turkic languages, they are referred to as “that which makes one stumble”. Wherever they are found, these phrases serve a double purpose. As a pedagogical device, tongue-twisters are used by parents and teachers to help children pronounce letters and clusters correctly or to distinguish between close articulatory renderings from one another. But twisters are not merely a means to secure one’s mastery of language. The sound repetitions involved and the possible slips intended by a fast articulation (e.g. “I am a mother pheasant plucker . . .” or “I’m a sheet slitter, I slit sheets . . .”) also lend such handlings of language an indisputably playful tone. This virtue is widely acknowledged by poets and jugglers alike, who have often made use of tongue-twisters to provoke comic or licentious spoonerisms, puns and equivoques.
This bilingual collection of Uzbek twisters is probably the first attempt to translate such tongue-specific sound effects from one language to another on a large scale. It consists in two parts, which correspond to the two major Turkic languages in use in Uzbekistan. The first displays Uzbek phrases from both the rural and the urban culture of Eastern Uzbekistan (excerpts from Ouloughbek Mansourov, Khoudayqoul Ibraguimov and Mouhabbat Abdougafourova’s collection), the second presents Karakalpak twisters from the pastoral traditions of the Western part of the country (relying on N. Baskakov’s record). Each section is further divided into three subsections (isophonic, cacophonic and droll twisters) that are conveniently designed after a mixed formal and semantic classification of the material, though devoid of a true typological pretence. Indeed, twisters range from a simple play on sounds—single or in combination—to more elaborate alternations of consonants with opposite articulatory features (e.g. velars and labials), and to phrasal and even textual constructions such as those twisters borrowed from the Kwarezm maskharaboz’s repertoire, which involve striking grammatical and semantic contrasts. While qualifying the child for articulate speech, Uzbek twisters also contribute to his socialisation from a number of standpoints. One important goal is to rid speech of dialecticisms and provincialisms that would expose one to discrimination on a geographic or ethnic basis. But from the child’s training to the teacher’s trick or to the poets’ wit, twisters belong to all. A most volatile and changing oral material, they are prone to verbal creation and host innumerable neologisms. Their virtuoso repetition, performed by native speakers, may be heard from the CD.
The real challenge lies in their translation. To some degree, Rémy Dor’s French version admits of transpositions in words, names (e.g. Sarah-Rose for Gulsara) and even letters (the Uzbek velar fricative /g‘/, for example, is rendered by the French uvular /r/) in order to meet the requirements of the sound patterns. Every text comes with a small lexicon that allows a better understanding—or even, a rewriting—of the translation. The whole linguistic tour de force in itself certainly calls for praise. Yet this charming little volume may well serve as a playful exercise-book for Langues’O students as well as a source of inspiration for poets.