Stuttering through the ages

Posted on 27 February 2014

We spoke to speech therapist Dina Lilian about how the treatment of stuttering has changed, and asked two people to share their story with us.

Stuttering has baffled experts for centuries. So, as you can imagine, there have been some strange theories to explain stuttering and even stranger ideas for fixing it. The ancient Greek statesman Demosthenes tried to control his disfluency by speaking with pebbles in his mouth. Aetius of Amida, a sixth-century physician, believed the tongue was the culprit. As did 19th-century European surgeons. In South Africa, some people still believe that applying ointment to the throat, speaking to your reflection in a mirror and improving your posture can cure stuttering. Psychoanalysis has also been attempted.

…And now
Modern research suggests that genetics (approximately 60% of those who stutter have a family member who also stutters), childhood development, neurophysiology (brain imaging studies have shown differences in the brain activity of people who stutter) and family dynamics contribute to the development of stuttering. But, despite our progress in understanding the cause, there’s still no magical overnight cure. Most times, speech therapy is used to teach people how to manage their stutter. It’s best to start this in childhood, but a therapist can help teenagers, young adults and even older adults make significant progress towards speaking fluently. Dina has a special interest in stuttering and one of the techniques she teaches is the Easy Relaxed Approach – Smooth Movements (ERA-SM), which was developed by US speech pathologist Hugo Gregory. Willem Boshoff, a financial manager who lives in the West Rand and one of Dina’s clients, says the technique involves prolonging the first syllable of a phrase and then relaxing your muscles. ‘As you start using it, it lowers your stress level. Your mind always runs ahead of you looking for letters you’re scared of and will get stuck on. But having a technique to fall back on gives you confidence to get through a block.’ Electronic devices, including a delayed auditory feedback device that looks like a hearing aid, are sometimes also used for treatment. Researchers in the USA are investigating medication as a possible treatment option. People who stutter should regularly attend a self-help support group such as Speakeasy.

Speaking out
Joburg-based Graham Klawansky and Willem Boshoff from the West Rand tell us about their battles with stuttering.
‘To hear everyone speak fluently while you struggle to get your words out is frustrating. Sometimes, depending on how people react, you feel embarrassed. I’ve often thought: “Why me?”’ says 23-year-old Graham, an IT and music technician. And he says it with barely any disfluency at all. Graham’s job requires him to speak to clients on a regular basis. A year ago he sought help from Dina Lilian for the stutter that he grew up with and since then he’s been able to bring it under control. ‘It just came out of the blue when I was in grade two or three,’ he says. ‘Two years ago I couldn’t have this kind of conversation without stuttering. I do stutter a little bit now and then, but it’s not as bad as it was.’ Dina taught Graham techniques to manage his stuttering. ‘They can be quite hard to apply, especially if you stutter a lot.’ So every morning before work, he reads a page out of a book using the techniques – ‘just to warm up my speech and keep practising’. Willem is a 50-year-old financial manager. Like Graham, his job requires a lot of talking. ‘When I started working, speaking on the phone was like a long-distance run. After five minutes I was actually exhausted.’ Growing up in rural areas meant Willem went to schools where speech therapy wasn’t really available. ‘My folks took me to various people, including homeopaths, who claimed that they had helped people with stuttering. I never got professional help until the early ’90s when I read about Speakeasy. ‘It was the first time that I met people who had the same problem. It started the process of understanding and learning to live with it. Most stutterers will tell you they’d love there to be a tablet make it go away, but there isn’t.’ After a busy period during which Willem couldn’t devote much time to therapy, he heard about a device that could help him manage his stutter. Dina had a demo model and said he could try it in conjunction with therapy. ‘I decided I didn’t want to depend on a machine with batteries. You turn it on and it works, but you turn it off and you still stutter. I thought it would be better to work at the problem.’

Did you know? Mediclinic’s Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre, where Dina Lilian established the Stuttering Clinic, is the first private academic hospital in South Africa. You can email Dina at or visit for more information.

Famous stutterers
There is quite an extensive list of famous celebrity stutterers and politicians. Here are few you probably didn’t know about…
1. ‘I was a total loner, not by self-design. I used to stammer and lisp, and dribble at the mouth.’ Anthony Hopkins struggled with dyslexia, too, so he kept himself busy with art, playing the piano and studying. At the age of 15, Richard Burton encouraged him to become an actor.
2. Winston Churchill described himself as having a speech impediment. He persevered through it and despite stuttering, gave memorable speeches that inspired the UK during times of war.
3. Who could forget her famous husky voice? Marilyn Monroe stuttered as a child and a speech therapist taught her how to take deliberate breaths before talking, which would guide her to fluency – and her trademark voice.
4. King George VI’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, taught him various techniques. Lionel was always at his side when he gave a speech – it was only in December 1944 (nearly 20 years after he’d first asked for Lionel’s help) that King George was able to speak without him at his side.
5. One of Elvis Presley’s teachers told him to sing so he could gain confidence and ultimately stop stuttering. He did and, as they say, the rest is history. We remember him for his hip-swivelling, slicked hair and blue suede shoes… Not his stutter.

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