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 if it were not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of the poem 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.
“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 “Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.