Informant: My favorite tongue twister… I learned it in England recently, actually. It’s a teacup one. “All I want is a proper cup of coffee, made in a proper copper coffee pot. I may be off my dot, but I want a cup of coffee from a proper coffee pot. Tin coffee pots and iron coffee pots, they’re no good to me. If I can’t have a cup of coffee from a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea. A nice cup of tea.” Where that comes from? I don’t know. But a nice British lady taught it to me!
My informant is a 20-year-old college student, majoring in theatre, who recently returned from a study-abroad semester in London, England. She’s been doing theatre for twelve years now in various parts of the country, so she’s heard many versions of theatre legends, tales, superstitions, and other pieces of theatre folklore.
I’d never heard this tongue twister before! I thought it was really fun because my informant learned it in England, where she recently spent a few months studying abroad. It was cool to hear a tongue twister that was so specific to another culture – none of the American tongue twisters I know talk about coffee or tea, and those are both big parts of British culture. Also the use of the word “proper” over and over again, which is a word that doesn’t pop up in America nearly as often as it does in England.
MS: “Oh do you remember that tongue twister you taught me? Where did you learn that?”
SL: “Oh yeah! My mom taught me that – hold on, let me make sure I get this right, okay.
“Keke kake kiki ko kuku kaki kake ko kaku ke”
SL: “So that’s like a tongue twister that my mom taught me when I was younger and it’s really (laughter) stupid. It’s just, it’s really childish. “Keke” means – it’s just a slang word for Uncle and then “kake” is the actual word for uncle or just like an older man. And his name is “kiki”. “ko kuku kaki” so why are your toenails so like sharp (laughter). And that is the gist of the story.”
MS: “Is this just a your family type of thing or is it pretty common tongue twister?”
SL: “I think it’s a pretty popular tongue twister but it is said in different forms.”
MS: “Do the other kids of your family also know or use it frequently?”
SL: “I think they would definitely know what it is but I think I’m the most like in tune with a lot of the Indonesian words like slang and…so I don’t think they would necessarily register what I’m saying – it’s just like why are you saying these words to me?”
The informant is an Indonesian-Chinese-American college student, who has lived in California her whole life. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world. She had taught me this tongue twister a few years ago, and though I knew how to say it, I never had the cultural context necessary to truly understand it.
The tongue twister seems to be a means of connecting to a distant culture – both through the use of slang words and the implicit vernacular and pronunciation sophistication required to present the tongue twister correctly and understand its meaning. The humorous meaning is probably a means of making the content appealing to children so they get influenced to repeat the phrase and subconsciously learn the language and culture.
Interviewer: “Do you know any Kenyan riddles or jokes?”
Informant: “I don’t know about jokes, but there is this one tongue twister my parents learned in Kenya.”
Interviewer: “That’s perfect, let’s hear it.”
Informant: “Okay.. haha. They learned this in primary school in Kenya I think, from their instructors. Here it is: If Kentai can tie a tie, then why can’t I tie a tie as Kentai can tie a tie?”
The informant learned this tongue twister from his parents, who learned it in school in Kenya. He is unsure that it has any significance beyond the play on words between “can tie” and “Kentai,” which sound especially similar with a Swahili accent.
This conversation occurred when the informant and I were speaking about the class’ readings on the Maasai tribes since he is from Kenya. He mentioned he might know some Kenyan or Maasai folklore since he grew up under Kenyan parents and has visited the country before. At this point I started recording and asking him probing questions.
I thought this example was particularly interesting because the informant’s parents learned this tongue twister in primary school. I personally cannot remember being taught a tongue twister during any of my schooling years, except for maybe encountering one from a fellow student during recess. Also interesting is the fact that the informant’s parents learned an English tongue twister in Kenyan school. Perhaps tongue twisters such as these were employed in English classes in Kenya to familiarize students with speaking in English in a potentially fun way. Because there is far less emphasis in US education on learning a new language, especially in elementary school, we are not as familiar with the same strategies.
At dinner with two friends, we started talking about our school experiences as young kids, and tongue twisters were brought up. One friend recited the “if a woodchuck could chuck wood” tongue twister, which spurred another friend to say the following. LA is the informant, PH is myself.
LA: Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously for nobody’s toeses are poses of roses as Moses supposes his toeses to be
Everyone laughs and the other two of us are confused.
PH: What?! What is that?
LA: Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously for nobody’s toeses are poses of roses as Moses supposes his toeses to be, you don’t know that?
PH: No! (Neither had my other friend at the table; both of us are from Southern California)
LA: Huh, that’s weird
PH: Can you say it again slowly so I can collect it for my folklore project?
LA: Sure! (slower) Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously for nobody’s toeses are poses of roses as Moses supposes his toeses to be
PH: Thank you! Do you know where you first learned it?
LA: I don’t, I’ve like heard it from multiple sources I feel like?
PH: Okay, cool!