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How Stuttering Works


Stuttering Through Time
According to the Bible, the prophet Moses had a stutter. Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
According to the Bible, the prophet Moses had a stutter. Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, taking 'shrooms in a tree during a thunderstorm is not a recommended cure for stuttering, even though Paul Stamets swears by the medicinal properties of mushrooms. Still, it's probably no less potentially injurious than some of the recommended stutter-stemming techniques of the past.

Humans have probably stuttered for as long as we've been able to talk. Moses, for instance, is reputed in the Bible to have stuttered. The Talmud even has an explanation for how this happened. When Moses was a baby, the Pharaoh was told to be on guard against the tot because Moses was due to rebel when he grew up. So, in his wisdom, the Pharaoh decided to perform a little experiment with potentially mortal consequences. Baby Moses was to choose between a bowl full of shiny gold stuff and another one stuffed with hot coals. If Moses chose gold, he would die. Being a baby, of course, he reached for the shiny stuff. Luckily, an angel intervened and directed the infant's hand to the hot coals. Moses grabbed one and popped it in his mouth, thereby gaining a permanent stutter.

When Moses queried God about how he was to lead his people out of Egypt with a crippling stutter, God's answer was that Moses' brother, Aaron, would be Moses' spokesman. Sometime later another politician of the ancient world, the Greek statesman Demosthenes, enlisted a famous actor of his day to help ameliorate his disfluencies. The actor, Satyrus, had the politician perform various voice exercises with a mirror, speak with pebbles in his mouth and recite speeches while hiking uphill.

In sixth century Byzantium, Emperor Justinian's physician, Aetius of Amida, was one of the first to propose a surgical remedy, which involved slicing the frenulum (the thin flap of skin between your tongue and the floor of your mouth). Poor tongue! Variations of this remedy proved popular through the ages, as one doctor after the other came up with new ways of cutting that excellent muscle. In the 1830s, a French physician named H. de Chegoin was convinced that stutterers had oversized tongues. The obvious solution was to reduce, with the aid of a scalpel, the size.

Other treatments were less bloody. In the early 1800s, a Parisian doctor named Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard favored the use of a small forklike object made of ivory or gold that he positioned under the tongue for support. While he claimed to have cured two people of stuttering, both eventually relapsed.

In the U.S., an intrepid pair named Jane Leigh and Christopher Yates developed an approach that was intended as a kind of strengthening, or reorientation, exercise. Once again, the tongue was assumed to be the culprit. Stutterers were to place the tip of their tongues hard against the front of their palates, directly behind the upper front teeth, and hold it there for three days.

So it went with each "specialist" claiming to have the solution so eagerly sought by stutterers down the ages.

And when psychoanalysis became the rage, it was a natural fit. Clearly, psychoanalysts said, stuttering was a neurosis [source: Goldberg]. What better cure for being unable to talk, than to talk?


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