How many sheep?

My mother’s father was fond of wordplay and was an important influence on my love of language. I remember one of the riddles he told me, which is difficult to render in print: A man had twenty-si/kʃ/heep and ten died. How many did he have left? This is impossible to answer correctly. If I interpreted twenty-si/kʃ/heep as twenty-six sheep and answered sixteen, he would say, “No, I said ‘twenty sick sheep’, so he had ten left”. And vice versa.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when a lesson in the textbook included the linking of words in normal speech. One example was first of all, and one student said that it sounded like festival. In isolation, maybe, but not in a sentence like “Festival, I would like to welcome you all here today”.

The pronunciation issues are slightly different but similar enough that I told them the riddle and wrote the two interpretations on the board. Another student thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. In English, at least. I’m sure they have silly puns in that language.

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