'The Chaos' by Gerard Nolst Trenité
‘The Chaos’ by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946) is a poem that highlights the ambiguous nature of English words and their pronunciation. The poem has seen many variants since the first version was released in 1920. The author revised it often, though it has been difficult to find each iteration of the poem and the date it was modified. When Gerard Nolst Trenité died in 1944 the poem was already on its 7th edition, and by 1961 there had been 11 editions. The fullest version of the poem was published on the English Spelling Society website in 1994 (which has since gone offline in 2013), and that consisted of 240 lines, being the most complete version known. According to the Harvard blog – https://blogs.harvard.edu/sj/concordant-chaos/ – there have been some very minor updates as recently as March 2017 which perhaps suggests it will still continue to be a poem of significant interest into the future!
Written below is the original 1920 version of the poem, which we have also recorded to allow you to hear the nuances and the complexities of the English language. This can be viewed on our YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/PWPUiom25EM.
Gerard Nolst Trenité
Original Version 1920
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain,
(Mind the latter, how it’s written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say—said, pay—paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak,
Previous, precious; fuchsia, via;
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven; how and low;
Script, receipt; shoe, poem, toe,
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid; measles, topsails, aisles;
Exiles, similes, reviles;
Wholly, holly; signal, signing;
Thames; examining, combining;
Scholar, vicar and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable—admirable from “admire”;
Lumber, plumber; bier but brier;
Chatham, brougham; renown but known,
Knowledge; done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone; Balmoral;
Kitchen, lichen; laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German; wind and mind;
Scene, Melpomene, mankind;
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with “darky”.
Viscous, viscount; load and broad;
Toward, to forward, to reward,
And your pronunciation’s O.K.
When you say correctly croquet;
Rounded, wounded; grieve and sieve;
Friend and fiend; alive and live;
Liberty, library; heave and heaven;
Rachel, ache, moustache; eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed;
People, leopard; towed, but vowed
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches; wise, precise;
Chalice but police and lice.
Camel; constable, unstable;
Principle, disciple; label;
Petal, penal and canal;
Wait, surmise, plait, promise; pal.
Suit, suite, run, circuit, conduit
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular; gaol; iron;
Timber, climber; bullion, lion,
Worm and storm; chaise, chaos, chair;
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Ivy, privy; famous, clamour
And enamour rime with “hammer.”
Pussy, hussy and possess.
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf; countenance; lieutenants
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival; tomb, bomb, comb;
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt, but aunt;
Font, front, wont; want, grand, and, grant,
Shoes, goes, does.) Now first say: finger,
And then: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal; mauve, gauze and gauge;
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, but unite.
Reefer does not rime with “deafer,”
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull; Geoffrey, George; ate, late;
Hint, pint; senate, but sedate;
Scenic, Arabic, pacific;
Science, conscience, scientific;
Tour, but our, and succour, four;
Gas, alas and Arkansas!
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm; Maria, but malaria;
Youth, south, southern; cleanse and clean;
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Sally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe;
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf!
Heron; granary, canary;
Crevice, and device, and eyrie;
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic; ass, glass, bass;
Large, but target, gin, give, verging;
Ought, out, joust and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and wear and tear
Do not rime with “here”, but “ere”.
Seven is right, but so is even;
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen;
Monkey, donkey; clerk and jerk;
Asp, grasp, wasp; and cork and work.
Pronunciation—think of psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spikey;
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing “groats” and saying groats?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with “enough,”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of “cup”……
My advice is—give it up!
1920 Version: “Drop Your Foreign Accent“ – https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ruize-rijmen/De_Chaos
The English Spelling Society – http://spellingsociety.org/uploaded_misc/poems-chaos-misc.pdf