‘Stutter’ Is Not Just For The Birds

Prof traces speech impediment through history and culture

Bryan G. Chen

In his latest book, “Stutter,” Babbit Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of English Marc Shell explores a topic close to home.

He has struggled with stuttering his whole life, and in this work, he approaches his subject from almost every conceivable angle. Shell, who spoke with The Crimson, illuminates stuttering’s medical, linguistic, cross-cultural, comedic, biblical, zoological, poetic, and political facets, to name a few.

He presents wide-ranging and interesting facts—for instance, stutterers make up just under one percent of the world’s population.

Some, like Henry James, find it easier to speak fluently in a non-native tongue, and others, when they sing, are as clear as birds.

A number of birds, however, including approximately seven percent of the zebra finch population, actually do stutter.

And that’s not even mentioning cartoon animals like Porky Pig, whose comedic stammering, though perhaps politically incorrect, is scientifically sound. Shell finds that the logic of Porky’s jokes follows a human stutterer’s efforts to achieve fluidity.

A more Kosher segment of the book deals with Moses, perhaps the world’s most famous stammerer. Shell notes that Moses experienced outbursts of rage common to frustrated stutterers—the breaking of the first set of commandments may have been one such incident.

All kinds of linguistic doublings, word repetitions, and origins open new analytical possibilities.

In a particularly elegant passage, Shell explicates how the concepts of “barbarian” (meaning ‘a person who does not speak our language’) and “stutterer” (indicating ‘a person who does not speak our language our way’) converged in the hexametrical proclamation of the Visigoth Aleric as he stood outside the gates of Rome.

The conqueror stammered “teteroromamanunudadatetelalatete,” roughly translatable from the Latin as, “I’ll crush you Rome, with my bare hands! Hand over your spears. Hide!”

It’s moments like these when Shell’s scholarship shines—where seemingly disparate linguistic and cultural arguments converge in a delightful illustration of interconnectedness.

In other passages, however, the connections seem a bit more tenuous.

In his section about Hamlet’s stutter-like habits of repetition, punning, and word substitution, Shell makes the (perhaps unavoidable) play on Hamlet being a “little ham” akin to Porky Pig.

And sometimes the arguments become so technical on a linguistic level that one becomes lost in jargon.

Though Shell does not discuss intersections between art and economics in “Stutter,” which he has addressed in previous works, he does return to other pet subjects. One chapter is titled “Animals that Talk,” a topic he teaches in an English seminar.

Similarly, analysis about the links between verbal and physical stumbling leads Shell to discuss polio, from which he also suffered as a child and has previously examined in an equally interdisiplinary book.

While “Stutter” has a concluding chapter, it seems as though Shell deliberately ends with the same “lack of closure” stutterers often suffer.

One is left with an impression more than a conclusion: stuttering is more than a speech condition—it is a complex phenomenon that influences culture in ways Shell has only begun to elucidate.

By Marc Shell
Harvard University Press
Out Now