writes in a lyrical style reminscent of French philosophy, with examples of historical discussion from Galen and Francis Bacon to Freud. Some readers may be more amenable than I am to this kind of thing:
The voice is the vehicle and the arena of this agon between dissipation and replenishment. Our celebrations of the voice are too monotonously pitched in the register of fullness, richness, clarity and penetrativeness, the privilege is too regularly accorded to the energetic out-loud and the “haute voix”. The autumnal, deciduous voice, which is heard in illness, fatigue, ague and age, is not epically shredded by passion, but rather silted with lilting circumstance.
I would love to hear a group of stammerers, or indeed anyone, trying to get their tongues around “paradoxical polyphiloprogenitiveness”.
Call me superficial (You’re superficial—Ed.), but With All Due Respect to Ancient and Modern Sages, I’m intrigued by some of the asides. Connor notes Marc Shell’s observation that when animals were given human speech in animated film, they often, like Donald Duck, or Porky Pig, suffered from speech impediments. I see that Porky shared his stutter with the voice actor who originally played him; but because he couldn’t control his stutter, recording sessions took hours and production costs became too high (cf. my own attempts at voiceover). Here’s a helpful roundup:
which features the “That’s all folks!” sign-off:
There’s even a ten-hour version (WTF). But scholars don’t seem to agree that the word “Hottentot” is an onomatopoeic mockery of stuttering that early Dutch colonists in South Africa thought they heard in the speech of the local people. I’m keen to read Robert Arthur’s 1964 story The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (cf. the truth-speaking parrot of Tibetan opera).
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Less fantastical is this study, supplementing my More stammering songs:
- Josephine Hoegaerts, “S-s-s-syncopation: music, modernity, and the performance of stammering (ca. 1860–1930)”
Stammering’s material culture of the past lends itself to historical analysis and therefore allows us to gauge how medical and social attitudes toward the impediment have changed.
The impediment not only provided (pseudo) medical actors with a lucrative market for various curative objects and practices, but also propelled the (sheet-) music business. Stammerers themselves appear in this story of materialisation and market as both agents and objects. The cheap self-cures, medical manuals, sheet music and (later) recordings that were produced not only for, but also by, them, show how easily the impediment was aligned with the modern consumer’s identity and how the persona of the stammerer was, ultimately, lodged in the Western collective memory in very material ways.
Writing of the “collusion between consumerism and stammering” in the late 19th century, she observes:
The cures targeted a middle-class audience that would presumably care most about speech impediments (they were in a profession requiring fluent speech), but—more importantly—would also have the means to afford a cure. Self-help manuals seem to have targeted a similar audience: they were relatively cheaply produced, but a book on stammering would necessarily have been a “luxury” item, requiring its owner to be literate. This image of the consumer of self-help manuals dovetailed conveniently with the image of what most scientists considered to be the typical stammerer: a white middle-class man, the victim of the modern “strenuous” life, but also autonomous and capable of curing himself.
It was often claimed that stammerers were typically found in the professional classes and characterized by an extraordinary intelligence. Hoegaerts cites an 1896 paper:
“Children of weak intellect rarely stutter because their thoughts are slow, and their speech always keeps pace with their thoughts.”
And she observes:
That the stammerer was “civilised” was shown by the fluent speech of “savages”. Travelers were called upon to show that no one had ever encountered speech impediments in the uncivilised world. “All travellers, who have long resided among uncultivated nations, maintain that they never met with any savages labouring under an impediment of speech”. This was because, according to scientists like Hunt, its inhabitants were not subjected to the stress and strain of civilisation: their fluent speech was owed to “their freedom from mental anxieties and nervous debility, the usual concomitants of refinement and civilization.” Likewise, the lower classes did not appear to seek the help of therapists and were considered to be relatively free of the impediment. […]
Women, on the other hand, were not so much thought of as uncivilised, but rather as more suited to civilisation and its rhythms of speech than men. Individual cases of female stammerers occasionally surfaced, but they were thought to represent a very small percentage of stammerers. According to Richard Faulkner, women expended less energy on speaking. “We have compared subsequently the energy developed in conversing by the voice of a man and that of a woman, and have found that women are fatigued, in talking, four times less than a man”. Others had already suggested that women were naturally good at speech. What made women’s speech so fluent, these theories surmised, was that most of it was idle chatter anyway.
Whereas “savages” could not speak of anything beyond the concrete and women did not move beyond the trivial, the (male, middle-class) stammerer’s laborious speech betrayed his intelligence.
Hoegaerts goes on,
That a woman could appear at her most attractive and intelligent by not talking at all would easily have been accepted by therapists and gentlemen-scientists of the period.
Women came to acquire the authority in the field of speech therapy—although I note that many of the most famous therapists have been men, while women comprise a majority of the work force—Typical!
The sound of stammering
Stammering became a popular theme for Tin Pan Alley songs, further popularised by sheet music. Yet
The popular representation of stammerers in songs, at the turn of the century and up until the 20s, seems very far removed from this image of the privileged, highly intelligent modern individual.
Composers treated stammering as a poetic and commercial opportunity, rather than as an impediment. It is no coincidence that almost all stammering songs were romantic and/or humorous in their content. The impediment was, in that sense, not the subject of the song, but merely a rhythmic device, the means to emotionally engage the audience, or the set-up for a joke. Sometimes, it was all three.
Of course, the rhythmic syncopation of stammering is an extrapolation by composers: the real sound is unpredictably non-metrical, aleatoric.
Following The stuttering coon (1898),
The connection of stammering to race allowed for rhythmic license. More specifically, the halting sound of stammering allowed composers to ride on the lucrative wave of ragtime music. Most explicit in the “use” of the sound of stammering was the 1913 song Stammering Sam, in which a young black boy’s stammer is presented as the “origin” of ragtime:
Then Stammering Sam sang,
and the company sang “babababa! Babababe!”
Singing his stuttering song with glee
and that was the very first ragtime melody.
Like the stammering girls, these stammering “coons” defied scientific knowledge: their ethnicity as well as their social class should have protected them from speech impediments. Yet there they are, imaginary creatures proudly claiming syncopated speech in order to entertain.
Of course, in many ways the “stammering coons” are images of manifold oppression: their almost clownish representation derided their ethnicity, the connection arguably degraded ragtime music as it refused to take it seriously as a style, and the depiction of their accented, lower-class speech placed them firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. Being put on show, after all, also meant being subjected to the harsh gaze of the audience, to become an object of consumption. Significantly, the songs would most likely be performed by non-stammerers for other non-stammerers (although those who did stammer could, of course, hear them as well). The stammerers in the songs were mere figments of their writer’s imagination, specifically created to be “performed”, “bought”, and “used” to serve the purposes of entertainment and consumption. Whereas stammerers were approached as agents on the market in therapeutic manuals, popular music banked on the characteristic sound of stammering in order to “sell” stammerers, rather than selling something to them. […]
In an ironic reversal of the therapeutic logic, [the stammering song] turned fluent speakers into stammerers (thus perhaps proving that speech could indeed be manipulated to a great extent). […]
The culture that emerged from this “modern” consumerist world was shaped by women, down-at-heel sailors, and young black boys as well. […] One could wonder if the worlds of the privileged stammerer and the imaginary one in songs coincided at all.
It’s good to see the factors of race, gender, and class featuring in the analysis of disfluency.