I have been wondering of late, what it is about a stammer that seems to rumble the core of the whole communication experience. Compared to other speaking differences, such as speaking fast, hesitating, or needing time to find a word, a stammer above all else sparks stigma.
In recent years, emphasis has been placed on challenging the vocabulary used around stammering (Campbell, 2017), but less focus has been directed towards the definition of the word stammer that has existed in some form for centuries and how that may have given rise to stigma.
Here the focus will be on exploring word type rather than word meaning, for example, whether the word stammer is defined lexically as a verb or a noun. However, the meaning and the context in which a word is used are inextricably linked to how it is classed, so we will then determine how the word type may have impacted on the word stammer’s meaning over time, and ultimately influenced society’s attitude to it.
If the parameters of how words are used in utterances or writing do lead to additional layers of stigma in language, most importantly, we then need to ask how can we define a stammer most helpfully in order to challenge and change negatives attitudes: to free the word stammer from its oppressive, mind-forged cage?
The crux lies in whether stammer is at its root a noun or a verb. I looked up the word stammer in two traditional and esteemed dictionaries:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines stammer first and foremost as a verb.
VERB [NO OBJECT]
Speak with sudden involuntary pauses and a tendency to repeat the initial letters of words.
‘he turned red and started stammering’
NOUN [in singular]
A tendency to stammer.
‘as a young man, he had a dreadful stammer’ (Oxford English Dictionary online, 2021)
The Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition follows a similar pattern (Cambridge English Dictionary online, 2021), both dictionaries fundamentally defining a stammer as a verb, rooted in actions related to speaking. The Oxford dictionary in addition states that the word stammer as a noun only appeared in the 18th century (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2021).
Stammering as a disgraced verb:
The problem with a stammer being predominantly described as something a person does – a verb – is that it insinuates that a person is responsible for and has control over that action. This then leads to judgements and misconceptions (stigma) about the use of the speaking variations heard. In Oxford’s noun form example above, we witness a stammer’s ‘dreadful’ transformation made with pointed, condemning finger, from merely a thing to, ‘that thing’ (Bailey, 2019) that a person does.
The etymology of stammer:
In ancient Greece a stammer was not stigmatised but held in high regard and linked to high forms of intelligence. Claudius who stammered was remembered as a bright ruler and serious writer. Demosthenes, who also stammered, was esteemed as a great orator.
In ancient Rome many distinguished Roman families chose the name Balbus, which signified that an ancestor stammered. This word arose from the Latin word battology, a discipline developed to help people who stammer which was derived from a mythologic creature made from stone (and therefore mute), and a King who stammered, both named Battus. It is believed that the word battology is derived from the simpler earlier Latin words baton and beat and could have done so due to the possible repetitions sometimes heard in stammered speech.
Later, the honoured word balbus evolved into the words baby, babble and bleat, where allusion is made to the ‘eee’ like sounds made by goats, sheep and infants. Is stigma here beginning to raise its head equating stammering with the infantile babble or a baby or the sound made by a goat? (Pandora Word Box, 2002-2010).
The present day word stammer derives from the late old English word stamerian of West German origin and the later English word stumble (Oxford English Dictionary online, 2021). The Old Germanic word origin stozan, from which stamerian evolved, meant ‘to thrust’ (Pandora Word Box, 2002-2021). Did this ancient race notice the repetitions, prolongations and blocks a stammer can lead to through their use of thrust just as the Ancient Greek’s highlighted the beats or repetitions in their use of the word beat? This word root seems relatively objective and to lack any of today’s prejudice, yet, somewhere through time the Old German word evolved to stama and eventually to the development of a more passive, secondary noun meaning: a ‘dumb, silent, worker’ (Pandora Word Box, 2002-2021). Stigma’s head rose.
It rose further too in Old Spain, where changes in facial expression seen in people who stammered led to the creation of the Old Spanish word for stammer, tartmudo. Allusions are made to the facial contortions and lack of speech being as if a person has tasted an unpleasant, fermented juice (as in a tart taste). Mudo means mute. There is an added sexual allusion to people’s speech being affecting as if they are dumbfounded by the sexual allure of a tart or wanton women (Pandora Word Box, 2002-2010). Today the word for stammer used in Spanish is still tartmudeo. From this objective stance it seems shocking that the word is still in use today.
In all the above examples, a stammer began as a simple verb, an action, and yet over time language around it became padded with stigma, leading to the underlying assumption today that a person who carries out a stammer is flawed.
The shaky foundations our systems are built on:
Today we know that a stammer has its roots in developmental neurology and that genetics plays a part for some people. However, even today the NHS defines a stammer as individually produced actions:
- you repeat sounds or syllables – for example, saying “mu-mu-mu-mummy”
- you make sounds longer – for example, “mmmmmmummy”
- a word gets stuck or does not come out at all (NHS, 2021)
Note the word ‘you’ used emphatically and twice: it is your problem, your fault and, under the medical model ethos, you are broken and need fixing.
The narratives of people who experience stammering are rarely straightforward. Many find a stammer extremely challenging to define and discuss it in a myriad number of ways: in terms of what they think, say or do, and often in terms of what other people think, say or do. Most poignant are the number of times that they might say that they have no control of it, that it pounces out on them unexpectedly! It doesn’t make sense that a stammer is narrowly defined as a ‘thing’ a person does; it is so much wonderfully more than that.
The shift to stammering as an accepted noun:
Social model pioneers in the world of stammering, both people who experience stammering at its source and their allies, have redefined and begun to reconstruct stammering in light of new, neurological research:
Simpson et al. (2021) put forward their working definition of the word realised as stammering:
‘Stammering is a neuro-developmental variation that leads to an unpredictable and unique forward execution of speech sounds produced in the context of language and social interaction.’
A stammer has become in essence a noun – a thing – a ‘variation’. This definition is more broad, more objective, if slightly academic in its use of language, but most importantly its meaning lacks judgement.
Understanding a stammer as a noun is a massively helpful shift; it has moved the definition of stammer from a seen and heard action – a verb – to a possibly hidden experience felt by the stammerer – a noun. The stammer is no longer a personal fault, it is a natural difference due to neurological diversity, which may or may not lead to unique patterns of speech depending on barriers in the communication environment and the influences of social interaction.
This noun-based definition immediately removes society’s unhelpful habit of judging and rating stammering severity. Stammering is no longer ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it just is.
Most importantly stigma is reduced by blasting unhelpful myths about the causes of a stammer. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with a person’s mouth, personality, or ability to speak sounds and words. Now, the language of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes foreign.
Now, variations in speaking, and numerous other behaviours seen or unseen by the listener, can be understood as responses to the differences in neurology, not as the stammer itself. This is really helpful in terms of differentiating between natural, underlying responses to stammering and secondary resistant behaviours, which often evolve over time due to scores of barriers in the environment. Society will now need to change!
Stammering as a unique, abstract territory:
The new, neurodiverse noun definition becomes more of a conundrum in that it cannot be defined as a common noun, such as an object or a person, due to its hidden or unsensed nature. Like other abstract nouns, such as days of the week, ‘life’ or ‘electricity’, a stammer is unfathomable, with no perceived shape or form. In this sense it is not something concrete and fixed, but highly fluid and changeable. Stammering is also both exciting and scary in that it involves a journey, for the source of the stammer is not where the waves or repercussions of it are felt. What lies between is a completely unchartered, untamed, marvellous territory.
Maybe it is that wild gap that disturbs and rocks the rhythm in a moment of stammering; causes the discombobulation or rumble to the speaker and the listener, to the total communication process.
A 20th- century, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had a more expansive view of a stammer as a fascinating perculiarity that happens within language, writing, ‘Language itself stutters’ and ‘Language trembles from head to toe’ (Deleuze, 1997).
It is only now I really understand the description a young girl gave of her stammer many years ago, when I first qualified as a speech and language therapist. She used a single word, ‘petrifying!’ and I finally understand she was talking about a shared experience.
Stammering defies definition:
Understood this way, a stammer is a most unusual experience for both the speaker and the listener, and my point stands thus: it is not at all unusual to struggle to find the most helpful terminology to describe something inexplicable. In searching for control and meaning in a place that is misunderstood, we often accept preconceived ideas as fact, cling to known terminology and narrow definitions to help us make sense. This is the language of fear.
Maybe it is helpful to go back in time to revisit those early, primitive roots of language where an Old Germanic fighting race respected stammered speech by using honourable, heartfelt language, the language of battle: ‘thrusting’ as with a ‘hilt’ or sword, pushing speech forward brave, bold and beautifully into new, unknown, but exciting communication territories? Stammerers as speech warriors, communication rebels even! People did not know about neurology then: the words brain signals, neurotransmitters and auditory feedback did not exist, but they recognised something powerful and terrifying in stammering that we have come to feel discomfort with today.
Maybe then we will begin to notice that the ‘rumbles’ a stammer causes are more than okay and can create something magical? Alpern (2019) writes:
“The stuttered introduction carries a unique charge, that when we step away can seem almost exciting. And the attendant gestures – the long handshake, the glance to a friend, the nervous laughs – are also compelling, atmospheric.”
During a shared stammer experience the communication world is almost stretched beyond recognition and maybe we need to accept that this is one of few human experiences which is ineffable. Perhaps language has actually failed us, and stammering defies definition.
A new language:
If language has so far let us down, we need to collectively make more effort to try to find out if stammering is ineffable or not and work on extending our language; to find out if there is a realm of possibility that a stammer can be defined or whether it stands in a class by itself.
It is time to be truly curious about a stammer and to look at it afresh. We can all meet in a new, dark, still space to create a universal understanding of a stammer, one that includes objectivity and imagination, acceptance, fluidity, and most importantly language without judgement. This language may be through personal narratives, poetry, art, dance or drama; arenas that more easily provide the opportunity to express that which cannot be precisely defined. We can redefine fluency in language by allowing it more variation.
I would also ask writers to do the same when they write about their heroes and heroines in emotionally charged moments of speaking. Please stop using, ‘they stammered’, whether a person has a stammer or not, to explain how they speak. Throw away stale narratives and use your skill to write more creatively, originally, and inventively.
My daughter suggested dispelling with the word stammer completely and making up a complete new word that does not have the associated meaning and stigma. I understand now why the British Stammering Association changed their name to STAMMA in an attempt to start afresh. However, there is the problem that words created by humans tend eventually to take on the attitudes and meaning of humans, and in a society that still struggles to find language that completely encompasses its complexity, maybe it is more helpful not to label a stammer or narrowly define it at all, but to take a step back and to look at it with a wide angled lens for a while, then to close back in and explore it with new eyes, as it happens, fluid-moment-by-fluid-moment.
A stammer’s uniqueness is a place we all need to visit with wonder and authenticity: to learn to sit with its paradoxes, stare out the stigma, embrace and liberate it as a most extraordinary, natural phenomenon; to sense it as a lovely, slightly uncomfortable, wild, groovy, shocking, newly created rhythm in, on top of, in between, underneath and roundabout shared language. We need to give it space, grace and time.
By Kathryn Bond
Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at Bradford District Care Foundation Trust
Alpern, E. (2019) Why Stutter more? In P. Campbell, C. Constantino & S. Simpson (Eds.), Stammering Pride and Prejudice: Difference not Defect (p. 21). J & R Press Ltd.
Bailey, K. (2019) Scary Canary: Difference, vulnerability and letting go of struggle. In P. Campbell, C. Constantino & S. Simpson (Eds.), Stammering Pride and Prejudice: Difference not Defect (p. 34). J & R Press Ltd.
Cambridge English Dictionary online (2021). Definition of Stammer.
Campbell, P. (2017). The Way We Talk. The British Stammering Association.
Deleuze, G (1997) He Stuttered. In Essays Critical and Clinical (pp. 23-29). Trans: D. W. Smith & M.A. Greco. Minneapolis, MI. University of Minnesota Press. In Alpern, E. (2019) Why Stutter more? In P. Campbell, C. Constantino & S. Simpson (Eds.), Stammering Pride and Prejudice: Difference not Defect (p. 20-21). J & R Press Ltd.
NHS.UK, (2021). Overview Stammering. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stammering/
Oxford English Dictionary Online (2021). Definition of Stammer. https://www.lexico.com/definition/stammer
Pandora Word Box, (2002-2021). Ideas in words: stammer stammering
Pandora Word Box, (2002-2010). Illustrated Overview: Stuttering or Stammering. http://www.consultos.com/pandora/0_stutter_b.htm
Simpson. S., Cambell, P., & Constantino. C. (2021). Stammering: Difference Not Defect [Online Paper Presentation]. Oxford Dysfluency Conference 2021.