“The Chaos” by Charivarius (Gerard Nolst Trenité): The Classic Concordance of Cacography


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud. – A post on Facebook titled “English Pronunciation”

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In 1945, a British soldier found a tattered typescript of ‘The Chaos‘, a classic English poem well-known for its versified catalogue of irregularities of English spelling (orthography) and pronunciation, in a girls’ High School in Germany and gave it to Tom Hazelwood, who gave it to Terry De’Ath, who gave it to Chris Upward (1939-2002), Senior Lecturer in German Aston University Birmingham, UK, and Editor-in-chief, Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society from 1985-2000 and the author of Cut Spelling Handbook.

Chris Upward also received a rather different version of the poem from Benno Jost-Westendorf of Recklinghausen. It seems that universities in South Germany used this poem in teaching English. However, No information on the author was available from any source.

Both versions received by Chris Upward appeared as carelessly copied from an original, but it was possible to correct errors in one by reference to the other.

The Simplified Spelling Society (SSS) Newsletter carried an incomplete, rather rough version in the summer of 1986 (pp.17-21) under the heading ‘Author Unknown‘, with a parallel transcription into an early form of Cut Spelling.

Hubert A. Greven’s Elements of English Phonology, published in Paris in 1972, introduced the poem quoting 48 lines from it to prove to French students how impossible English is to pronounce (to read aloud), and by way of acknowledgment said that the author “would like to pay a suitable tribute to Mr. G. Nolst Trenité for permission to copy his poem The Chaos.

Since then a stream of further information and textual variants appeared, culminating in 1993-94 with the most complete and authoritative version of the poem ever likely to emerge ripe for republication in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society.

Gerard Nolst Trenité

The Dutch literary (rhymed prose, drama), Anglicist and language critic Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité was born in Utrecht on July 20, 1870. He passed away on October 9, 1946 in Haarlem.

Gerard Nolst Trenité published under the pseudonym Charivarius. His poem The Chaos demonstrates many of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. The first version of 146 lines of text appeared in an appendix to his 1920 textbook ‘Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen‘. It has about 800 of the worst irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. Later, in 1992-93, The Spelling Society published “the most complete and authoritative version ever likely to emerge,” that has 274 lines.

The version I have reproduced below is essentially the author’s own final text, as also published by New River Project in 1993. A few minor corrections have, however, been made, and occasional words from earlier editions have been preferred. Words with clashing spellings or pronunciations are printed here in italics.

The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité

The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1922)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
   I will teach you in my verse
   Sounds like corpsecorpshorse and worse.

I will keep you, Susybusy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
   Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
   Queer, fair seerhear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
   Just compare hearthear and heard,
   Dies and dietlord and word.

Sword and swardretain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
   Made has not the sound of bade,
   Say-saidpay-paidlaid but plaid.

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 ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
   Wovenovenhow and low,
   Scriptreceiptshoepoemtoe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughterlaughter and Terpsichore,
   Branch, ranch, measlestopsailsaisles,
   Missilessimilesreviles.

Whollyhollysignalsigning,
Sameexamining, but mining,
   Scholarvicar, and cigar,
   Solarmicawar and far.

From “desire”: desirable-admirable from “admire”,
Lumberplumberbier, but brier,
   Topshambroughamrenown, but known,
   Knowledgedonelonegonenonetone,

OneanemoneBalmoral,
Kitchenlichenlaundrylaurel.
   GertrudeGermanwind and wind,
   Beau, kind, kindred, queuemankind,

Tortoiseturquoisechamois-leather,
Reading, Readingheathenheather.
   This phonetic labyrinth
   Gives mossgrossbrookbroochninthplinth.

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
   Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
   Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquetwalletmalletchalet.
   Blood and flood are not like food,
   Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
   Discountviscountload and broad,
   Toward, to forward, to reward,

Ricocheted and crochetingcroquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
   Roundedwoundedgrieve and sieve,
   Friend and fiendalive and live.

Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
   Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
   Buoyantminute, but minute.

Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
   Would it tally with my rhyme
   If I mentioned paradigm?

Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
   Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
   Rabies, but lullabies.

Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
   You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
   In a linen envelope.

Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
   To abjure, to perjureSheik
   Does not sound like Czech but ache.

Libertylibraryheave and heaven,
Rachellochmoustacheeleven.
   We say hallowed, but allowed,
   Peopleleopardtowed but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between moverploverDover.
   Leechesbreecheswiseprecise,
   Chalice, but police and lice,

Camelconstableunstable,
Principledisciplelabel.
   Petalpenal, and canal,
   Waitsurmiseplaitpromisepal,

SuitsuiteruinCircuitconduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
   But it is not hard to tell
   Why it’s pallmall, but Pall Mall.

Musclemusculargaoliron,
Timberclimberbullionlion,
   Worm and stormchaisechaoschair,
   Senatorspectatormayor,

Ivyprivyfamousclamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
   Pussyhussy and possess,
   Desert, but desertaddress.

Golfwolfcountenancelieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
   Courier, courtier, tombbombcomb,
   Cow, but Cowper, some and home.

Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker“,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor“,
   Making, it is sad but true,
   In bravado, much ado.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
   Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
   Fontfrontwontwantgrand and grant.

Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
   Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
   Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.

Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
   MindMeandering but mean,
   Valentine and magazine.

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
   Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
   Tier (one who ties), but tier.

Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
   Prison, bison, treasure trove,
   Treason, hover, cover, cove,

Perseverance, severanceRibald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
   Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
   Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.

Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffetbuffet;
   Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
   Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.

Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
   Evil, devil, mezzotint,
   Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)

Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
   Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
   Rhyming with the pronoun yours;

Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
   Funny rhymes to unicorn,
   Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.

No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
   No. Yet Froude compared with proud
   Is no better than McLeod.

But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
   Troll and trolleyrealm and ream,
   Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.

Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
   But you’re not supposed to say
   Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.

Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
   How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
   When for Portsmouth I had booked!

Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
   Episodes, antipodes,
   Acquiesce, and obsequies.

Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
   Rather say in accents pure:
   Nature, stature and mature.

Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
   Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
   Wan, sedan and artisan.

The th will surely trouble you
More than rch or w.
   Say then these phonetic gems:
   Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.

Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ‘em-
   Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
   Lighten your anxiety.

The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
   With and forthwith, one has voice,
   One has not, you make your choice.

Shoes, goes, does *. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
   Realzealmauve, gauze and gauge,
   Marriagefoliagemirageage,

Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
   Dostlostpost, and dothclothloth,
   JobJobblossombosomoath.

Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowingbowing, banjo-tuners
   Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
   Puisnetruismuse, to use?

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
   SeatsweatchastecasteLeigheightheight,
   Putnutgranite, and unite.

Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyrheifer.
   DullbullGeoffreyGeorgeatelate,
   Hintpintsenate, but sedate.

GaelicArabicpacific,
Scienceconsciencescientific;
   Tour, but our, dour, succourfour,
   Gasalas, and Arkansas.

Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
   Bona fide, alibi
   Gyrate, dowry and awry.

Seaideaguineaarea,
PsalmMaria, but malaria.
   Youthsouthsoutherncleanse and clean,
   Doctrineturpentinemarine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
   Rally with allyyeaye,
   EyeIayayewheykeyquay!

Say aver, but everfever,
Neitherleisureskeinreceiver.
   Never guess-it is not safe,
   We say calvesvalveshalf, but Ralf.

Starry, granarycanary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
   Face, but preface, then grimace,
   Phlegmphlegmaticassglassbass.

Basslargetargetgingiveverging,
Oughtoust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
   Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
   Do not rhyme with here but heir.

Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
   With the sound of saw and sauce;
   Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, puttingPutting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
   Respite, spite, consent, resent.
   Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
HyphenroughennephewStephen,
   Monkeydonkeyclerk and jerk,
   Aspgraspwaspdemesnecorkwork.

A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
   G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
   I of antichrist and grist,

Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
   Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
   Polish, Polish, poll and poll.

Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
   Won’t it make you lose your wits
   Writing groats and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlockgunwale,
   Islington, and Isle of Wight,
   Housewifeverdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying latherbatherfather?
   Finally, which rhymes with enough,
   Thoughthroughboughcoughhoughsough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

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3 thoughts on ““The Chaos” by Charivarius (Gerard Nolst Trenité): The Classic Concordance of Cacography

  1. This what I am trying to teach my son…the irregularities…:) first time learners will sure go mad. Hopefully he doesn’t say “I give it up” So many words all in a page…thank you.

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