Is there a larger story about what history thought about stammering?

A man looking at the camera

While researching speech impairments in colonial India for his PhD, Thomas Parkinson realised how much speech and language therapy in the past was tied to empire and racism. Here he tells us more.

What does the history of stammering look like? You may have heard the story of Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator who practised speaking with pebbles in his mouth to cure himself of his stammer. Then there's King George VI, whose desperate attempts to speak fluently were immortalised in the film The King's Speech. But beyond these curious anecdotes, is there a larger story about what people in the past thought about stammering?

Thinking about history is a useful way for us to understand the present. By looking back, we can see how people in the past tried to answer the questions we still have about stammering today — though not always correctly. In the medieval era, for instance, it was said that bodily humours and 'black bile' could bring about disfluency. From as early as ancient Egypt, historians have tried to cobble together a vast array of sources to reveal how different ways of speaking were subject to the speculations of scientists and the scalpels of surgeons. 

The fluency/disfluency divide

Attitudes to stammering have changed substantially over time. Yet, consistently, people in the past made very clear distinctions between what they considered to be 'normal' speech, i.e., fluent speech, and 'abnormal' speech, i.e., stammered speech. As a historian and a stammerer, I've reflected on this quite a bit. It's sad that people seem to have always thought about stammering in this way, although I'm sure there were some exceptions (only I'm yet to come across them!). Humans tend to think in binary terms, which probably goes some way to explaining this pattern of thought. Stammering can also be recognisably different from other ways of communicating and it can lead to unfavourable outcomes for those who experience it, affecting them socially, psychologically and economically. 

Histories of stammering demonstrate how medicine has intruded into the lives of disabled speakers and how society has treated those who stammer.

What is the origin of the fluent/dysfluent divide? Joshua St. Pierre at the University of Alberta argues that capitalism in the early twentieth century placed specific demands on people to speak fluently as it made them more economically productive. 'Deviant' speech like stammering began to be treated as a medical problem which, as St. Pierre shows, was partly how modern speech and language pathology originated.

Histories of stammering demonstrate how medicine has intruded into the lives of disabled speakers and how society has treated those who stammer. Historians of science, medicine and disability are interested in power, and how 'knowledge' that is acquired through scientific means — which is often seen to be objective — is steeped in biases, prejudices and inaccuracies. Just like knowledge about human biology, for instance, which is often faulty, misleading or incomplete, but is still used to justify political decisions. Stammering and its history is potentially fraught with the same problems and complexities.

Stammering and Empire

When I started my PhD, I decided that I wanted to use my research time to explore these things and I became interested in the relationship between medicine, speech impairment and, surprisingly, the British Empire. I wasn't even aware that relationship existed until I happened upon the work of James Hunt, a speech therapist turned anthropologist who practiced in London during the nineteenth century. Hunt was a controversial figure even for his time and when he founded the Anthropological Society in 1863 he was already well known for being a racist. Hunt believed in the separate origins of human beings and he thought that black and white people evolved from different kinds of primates. What struck me about Hunt was that his role in the nineteenth century debate about evolution was well known, as was his career as a speech therapist. The links between the two, however, were not.

Hunt wrote numerous books about stammering such as A Manual of the Philosophy of Voice and Speech (1859) and Stammering and Stuttering: Their Nature and Treatment (1865). Both books were suffused with racist ideas, including the notion that the 'buccal cavity', or the mouth, of Europeans and non-Europeans, and white and black people, were anatomically different, making them more or less likely to stammer, according to Hunt. When I read this, I was surprised that historians had failed to pick up on the troubling but fascinating connections between stammering and racism that were clearly evident in Victorian Britain. And because racism was used to justify imperial expansion, I wondered if there was a broader history to tell. As it turned out, there was.

...speech therapy, and what we think we know about stammering and other speech impairments, was tied in important ways to empire and bogus notions about 'race'.

Communication impairments of all types were viewed as windows onto the inner workings of the human brain. When speech 'failed', what happened to a person's brain? When particular regions of 'cerebral matter' were injured, a person's speech would be affected in particular ways; either they would stammer, or they would lose control over their speech or be unable to comprehend language as they normally would. 

As the British Empire expanded rapidly, at its peak covering one quarter of the globe in the early 20th century, historians agree that it used science and medicine to learn about its colonial subjects. At the same time, scientific inquiry into speech 'disorders' like stammering and aphasia were prevalent, as they seemed to reveal much about human cognition. Doctors in the colonies used their non-European patients to inform their theories about speech impairment and that 'knowledge' was filtered back to London where it became authoritative. Often, however, what those doctors thought they knew about people who stammer rested on shaky foundations, and their conclusions and therapeutic methods were distorted by their racist beliefs.

A fuller picture

What my research — which I am still working on — tries to show is that speech therapy, and what we think we know about stammering and other speech impairments, was tied in important ways to empire and bogus notions about 'race'. Having an honest and frank discussion about this history is not about condemning any one individual or the profession of speech therapy itself. It's about having a fuller picture of where our experiences originate and how the ways that we currently understand stammering came about. 

One of the best things about being a historian is that you never know which direction your research will take you. It's remarkable to read cases about stammering from hundreds of years ago during a time that seems so far removed from our own. But what my research has taught me is that we're much closer to our stammering forebears then we might think. In fact, we each make up a link in a long chain of experience that is defined by speaking 'incorrectly' and being ashamed of it. Perhaps by reflecting on that past we can begin to perceive a different future, where stammering is accepted as a valid way of communicating. Stammering is constantly placed under the microscope of scientists who want to 'fix' it — our attempts to understand why begin as much with ourselves as with our pasts.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you. If you'd like to write your own article on this subject, or anything else to do with stammering, see Share Your Story or email for details.

If you found this interesting, check out the book 'Words Fail Us: In Defence of Disfluency' by Jonty Claypool, which looks at the history of stammering therapy and how attitudes to people who stammer were formed. Read our review.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

Become a member

It's free

Join the movement to change how people understand and react to stammering.

Sign up

Campaign. Fundraise. Connect. Meet. Vote. Talk.