Elliott J. Schaffer
State University College, Fredonia, New York

First published in the ASHA Magazine, April, 1966, p. 167-168


Much of what we have to learn about stuttering in this century was known a century ago. Few present day scholars of stuttering are aware of earlier contributions because an important part of our heritage is missing. This is not to say irrevocably lost, but just generally unavailable. There is a book which was popular enough to demand seven editions from 1854 through 1870, and should be reprinted for present and future generations.

The author covered more than 2,000 years of the background of stuttering. He reported the origin of stuttering and stammering in several languages, including Anglo-Saxon, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindustani, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh. In ancient Hebrew, eleg meant a stutterer, kobad peh slow of speech. At one time in northern England stoter meant to stumble, and stammer to stagger. And in Germany, the wheels of a machine were said to stotter when they did not move rhythmically.

In less than 400 pages he presented viewpoints and treatments from the time of Hipprocrates through the 1860's. Hipprocrates attributed stuttering and stammering to dryness of the tongue, commenting that stutterers are freed from this impediment by varices, i.e., creating ulcers of the veins. If no varices appear, the impediment remains. This may well be the first distraction device. (Comments in italics are mine).

In the 16th century, Hieronymous Mercurialis, outstanding physician and the first scientific writer on defective speech, forbade washing the heads of stuttering children because moist and cold intemperies, i.e., debility of the muscles from diminution of heat, is the chief cause of balbuties, i.e., stammering and stuttering.

When he found out later about Hippocrates' viewpoint, he was obliged to assume two species of balbuties--natural and accidental. Natural was produced by humidity, unnatural by dryness. Mercurialis recommended rubbing the tongue with salt, honey, and sage to dry the tongue. Later, he recommended gargling woman's milk and moistening the tongue and top of the spinal cord for balbuties proceeding from dryness.

In the 1860's according to our author, stammering and stuttering had different definitions. Stammering was mainly "the inability or difficulty to properly and distinctly enunciate some or many speech sounds." Stuttering was "a viscious utterance, manifested in many cases by frequent repetitions, or by continuance of the initial or other sound syllable; in others by a convulsive stoppage before the same," and attended by useless, violent contractions of various muscles, some of which were not directly connected with speech. We find children who believe that because they have trouble saying some words that they just can't say them. This leads to hesitations, anxiety, and struggle behavior.

Before we consider some of the highlights of this book, let us clarify its title and author. The title is Stammering and Stuttering, Their Nature and Treatment, seventh edition, published by Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1870. The author was James Hunt, Ph.D. Just a few copies exist in university libraries or in private collections.

Among the citations is one regarding Johann Amman, 1669-1724, who said that Haesitantia, the laborious repetitions of explosive sounds is not the result of organic defects, but originates in the contraction of a vicious habit, which in time becomes inveterate. This appears to be the first attempt to explain stuttering as learned behavior.

In 1783, Moses Mendelssohn wrote that stuttering is more psychological than mechanical or organic. One is more liable to it when laboring under strong emotion, when speaking an unfamiliar tongue, or to a stranger who notices the infirmity, and least exposed to it when alone speaking slowly, and least of all when singing. These conditions of increased and reduced stuttering were reported nearly 200 years ago.

In 1809, Joseph Watson commented that stuttering is a bad habit founded upon constitutional susceptibility, though not an organic defect, for then it would operate uniformly. External objects and circumstances influence the stutterers' mind resulting in a disseveration. Constitutional predisposition still is considered a possibility, and cues do influence stuttering behavior.

Traveling back to another era brings us to a statement by Henry M'Cormac, who in 1828 said: "we may rationally expect in the course of a year or two, both in Europe and America. confirmed stuttering will only be a disease to be spoken of as a thing of the past or only to be witnessed in persons afflicted with insanity." We also learn about the Itard fork, Leigh's "American Method," Colombats' pirating ideas on mouth appliances and orthophonic exercises for which he received the French Academy's Monthyon Prize, and the tongue surgery craze of the 1840's.

Primary and secondary phenomena of stuttering were mentioned over 100 years ago. Klencke observed that primary and secondary phenomena, causes and symptoms, were all confounded, and if Colombat really succeeded in curing a stutterer, it was by blind chance . . . his disharmony between the will and the organs of motion, between innervation and muscular instability is identically the same as the theory of Rullier, or rather of Aristotle. Symptoms and causes are still confused. Klencke concluded that with theories we effect nothing in stuttering; we must observe many stuttering cases, and treat defects as undeveloped capacity. Would it ever occur to a physician to make a man a singer by drugs, without any instruction in singing? Any one pursuing the evasive essence of stuttering can appreciate Klencke's timely commentaries.

Only some of Hunt's significant citations and comments could be reported here. He also noted that some North American Indian tribes were free of stuttering. Monosyllabic languages were less prone to stuttering, he concluded. What of his own methods? He would treat no stutterer through correspondence, but treated stutterers according to individual needs. During the tongue surgery craze, he was one of the few not taken in by it. When most of the authors on stuttering were themselves stutterers, and had not succeeded in curing themselves, he concluded: "A man who is his own doctor has a fool for his patient."

From the pages of this book we realize that our heritage on stuttering is a rich one. And this is not the only book worthy of reprinting. But Stammering and Stuttering, Their Nature and Treatment is an important source of information which should be available to all.


reprinted with permission of ASHA
December 27, 2007