Philip Garber Jr., a precocious sixteen-year-old from New Jersey who was taking history courses at the County College of Morris, recently held his hand up for most of his seventy-five-minute history class. He wanted to ask why China’s fifteenth-century explorers had not reached North America, since they had traveled as far as Africa. His teacher never called on him. Although Philip’s classmates reported that his queries did not habitually take up more time than other students’, and that his contributions were marked by insightfulness and wit, his teacher had already asked him not to speak in class because she considered his severe stutter “disruptive.” Philip reported the incident to a college dean, who arranged to have him transferred to another class, taught by a more tolerant instructor, in which Philip has been asking and answering questions freely.
Several decades earlier, Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI of England, had stuttered painfully as a youth, an affliction beautifully documented in the award-winning film The King’s Speech. In good part because he so feared asking and answering questions, he had graduated last in his class at the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight. (In one classroom session he had “failed to respond when asked what was a half of a half because of his inability to pronounce the initial consonant of ‘quarter.’”) The duke’s father, George V, had little compassion for his son’s affliction, impatiently ordering him to “get it out” when he could not finish a sentence. Shy and introverted, overshadowed by his outgoing, immensely popular brother David (later King Edward VIII, still later the Duke of Windsor), York suffered from stomach ulcers so severe—most probably triggered by the anxiety caused by his speech disorder—that they had to be treated surgically.
In his twenties, soon after his marriage to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duke of York (known as “Bertie” to his intimates) was persuaded by his wife to seek professional help. He sought the services of Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist recommended by a mutual friend, and went weekly to Logue’s office on Harley Street, the heart of London’s medical establishment. The two men had eighty-two appointments between October 20, 1926, and December 22, 1927. Bertie spent most every moment of his spare time diligently following the daily exercises assigned him by Logue (one of them consisted of sounding out every vowel in front of an open window, and holding each one for fifteen seconds). By the end of that year Bertie had sufficiently allayed his speech impediment to speak fairly fluently at the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra, Australia.
Philip and Bertie were in distinguished company: Emperor Claudius I of Rome, Aristotle, Virgil, Demosthenes, Charles Darwin, opera star Robert Merrill, the young Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, actor Louis Jouvet, and French revolutionary activist Camille Desmoulins were stutterers. The list may have included Moses, who described himself as “heavy of speech,” and of “uncircumcised lips.” A disproportionate number of writers have been equally afflicted: Somerset Maugham, Lewis Carroll, Henry James, Edward Hoagland, Philip Larkin, John Updike, who wrote of “the paralysis of stuttering,” and Margaret Drabble, who has made “a public declaration of public silence.”
Many stutterers, such as Henry James and the late New York Times critic John Russell, have only been plagued in their native tongues; both men, who spoke excellent French, often switched to that language to calm their impediment. Others are exempted from their defect by attending to specific tasks, or by talking to particular audiences. Stammerers, for instance, speak fluently to animals and small children. They can read aloud to themselves without a stumble. They do not stutter when uttering profanities. They can also sing without faulting on any words, and Edith Wharton tells us that Henry James chose to chant his favorite poems to friends. A noted stammerer of my generation, George Vassiltchikov, from an aristocratic Russian family, was one of the United Nations’ most prominent interpreters; he spoke French, German, English, and his native Russian with a painful stutter except when a microphone was at hand. He then spoke mellifluously in all of his four languages.
The anxiety caused by stuttering has prevailed for millennia. A prayer to find release from it, dated several centuries before the Christian era, has been found on a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia. One of the first remedies for stuttering recorded in Greek mythology concerns a Prince Battus, who in the seventh century BC implored the oracle of Delphi to alleviate his flaw. The cure imposed by the oracle was expensive and distressing: Battus had to assemble an army, prevail over the inhabitants of an inimical foreign island, and never return to his homeland. At first dismayed by the prospect of a lifelong exile, Battus obeyed, and after winning his battles became as golden-tongued a monarch as any in the Mediterranean, founding, and then ruling over, the Greek colony of Cyrene in present-day Libya.
Most adults who stutter find their greatest obstacles in nouns, verbs, and adjectives rather than in articles, prepositions, pronouns, or conjunctions; in longer words; and in words that are at the beginning of sentences. Until very recent times, speech impediments were thought to be of a physiological nature. Aristotle, who is said to have stuttered himself, believed that stutterers’ tongues were abnormally thick or hard, and thus “too sluggish to keep pace with the imagination.” The second-century Greek physician Galen judged that stammerers’ tongues were too cold and wet. So did Francis Bacon, who suggested a draught of hot wine to thaw “the Refrigeration of the tongue, whereby it is less apt to move.” A nineteenth-century German doctor, Johann Dieffenbach, even pioneered surgery of the tongue to cut away some of the organ’s muscles. This procedure was widely emulated in continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. Anesthesia was unavailable, so the procedure, in addition to being totally ineffective, proved extremely painful and even fatal to some patients.
Some decades later speech theorists came closer to modern findings, suggesting that stuttering was not traceable to physical flaws such as misshapen or underheated tongues, but instead was caused by faulty breathing and inadequate use of the speech organs. Alexander Melville Bell, for instance, a teacher of the deaf whose son was to invent the telephone, derided the popular view that stammering was caused by some material defect, as did Alexander Graham Bell himself, who founded an “establishment for the correction of stammering and other defects of utterance.” (Professor Henry Higgins, the protagonist of My Fair Lady, is said to have been in part modeled on the senior Bell.) Both Bells insisted that stuttering was a bad habit that could be cured by reeducating the speech organs, such as the disposition of the lips.
Later theorists of stuttering, such as a Kansan named Wendell Johnson, turned their attention to young stutterers’ social milieus. The parents of many stutterers, Johnson claimed, have tended to be the kind of upwardly mobile perfectionists who wished their offspring to be more successful economically and socially than they were, and have been anxiously aware that linguistic skills would greatly influence their children’s prosperity. Such parents oversee their offspring’s speech patterns with extravagant concern, often interrupting them, a habit that can readily trigger, or worsen, a stuttering problem.
One percent of the world’s adults, and 4 percent of its children, suffer from stuttering. The onset of the ailment tends to occur between the ages of two and five, but most of those who stutter at an early age tend to recover in mid-adolescence. Barry Guitar’s Stuttering: An Integrated Approach to Its Nature and Treatment is eloquent about the manner in which many children—young Philip Garber for example—are harmed by the insensitivity of their teachers. Guitar documents the cases of brilliant youngsters who are placed in the lowest reading groups because they stutter, and of kids thought “dumb” by teachers because they answer “I don’t know” to their instructors’ questions rather than risk their impatience or derision.
I stuttered as a child, and remember many such indignities. One particularly unpleasant memory: my mouth was stuffed with pebbles by my governess, who made me stand on a seaside hill and recite the first verses of Lamartine’s “Le Lac”:
Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
Dans la nuit eternelle emportés sans retour
Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des ages
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour?
“Like Demosthenes!” my governess exulted, referring to the Greek orator who remedied his affliction by outshouting the surf through a mouthful of pebbles. Lamartine’s lines were particularly difficult, for like most stutterers there were letters I stumbled on more than others—my bêtes noires were p and d (“p-p-p-p-oussés,” I would painfully articulate, “d-d-d-d-ans la nuit”). The fatal letter for Gerald Jonas, author of the splendid memoir Stuttering, was m, and he often sought to substitute a sentence such as “I’ll have to ask my mother” with something like “I’ll have to check with my folks.”
George VI had his own disastrous letters, we are told in Mark Logue and Peter Conradi’s excellent book The King’s Speech, which documents, more tellingly and intimately than the film of the same name, the manner in which the monarch’s speaking defect was allayed by Logue’s grandfather, Lionel. Young “Bertie” found his most embarrassing moments in the sounds s, f, and k—the latter was especially tormenting because he often had to toast the king, his father, and “the kingdom.” Entire words had to be replaced in Bertie’s frequent speeches—“government” was substituted by “ourselves,” “call” took the place of “summon.” Speech therapists inevitably assign tongue-twisters to their clients, and Logue made George VI repeat “She sifted seven thick-stalked thistles through a strong thick sieve.” (The phrase imposed on me by my governess was “Les chaussettes de l’Archiduchesse sont elles sèches ou archi-sèches.”)
Three out of four child stutterers cease to stammer in their mid-teens. I was lucky to be one of them. Several stammerers who did not enjoy that reprieve have documented the distress they experienced into late adolescence and adulthood. Jason Taylor, the protagonist of David Mitchell’s autobiographical novel Black Swan Green, set in England in the 1970s, gives the euphemism “Hangman” to his speech defect, describing its “snaky fingers that sink around my tongue and squeeze my windpipe so nothing’ll work.” N is Jason’s worst hangman sound. He cannot say the word “nothing.” At the age of nine, when asked how old he is, Jason holds up nine fingers. Somerset Maugham acknowledged that stuttering was central to his life, and like Maugham, like most stutterers, Jason’s world is exaggeratedly centered on his ailment: “Every car on every motorway, even Mrs. Thatcher in the House of Commons’d frozen…thinking, ‘What’s wrong with Jason Taylor?’” “Apart from the Russians starting a nuclear war,” Jason also muses, “my biggest fear is if Hangman gets interested in J-words, ’cause then I won’t even be able to say my own name.” Needless to say, Jason suffers all the worse from his ailment when he is teased by his peers: When other boys had harassed him, “Hangman” “grip[ped] the root of my tongue and every letter in the alphabet was a stammer-letter.”