Stuttering in culture is grotesque. It’s grotesque like the Boxer at Rest with his broken nose, the posture of the body, the top-heavy overmuscled upper body and cauliflower ears. Sure the Boxer is a masterpiece, but a David by Michelangelo it is not. It’s different. The Boxer depicts normal life; not the Utopian life of David. This type of depiction is rare. The Boxer is not believed to be a portrait of a real person, but a stereotype.
Stereotype is the keyword when it comes to stuttering in culture.
Stuttering in culture with Callot and the grotesque gnomes
Jacques Callot made a stuttering gnome (Mirabell garden, Salzburg, Austria) as a part of his series Varie Figure Gobbi. It’s features gives a hint that this is a stuttering gnome.
The indications of stuttering are the glasses and the oversized tongue. According to the research paper Stuttering in History and Culture, it was considered up until the 19th century that there was a connection between defects of articulation and squinting.
Luckily Dieffenbach had a solution for squinting eyes. He simply cut the squinting eye muscles because he:
[…] said that he found, because he had paid attention to the fact, that many who stuttered also squinted. – Stuttering in History and Culture
Also the tongue was an interesting object for the surgeons of the 18th and 19th century. The tongue was believed to be the main problem of stuttering from the time of Demosthenes (383-322 BC) and up to the late 19th century. As we discussed in What doesn’t kill you – stuttering treatment through history surgeons had the time of their life cutting and manipulating the tongue and the nerves that controls the tongue.
Hence the oversized tongue on the stuttering gnome.
The Commedia Dell’Arte – or culture at its finest in the Renaissance period
Our friend Callot found the inspiration for his gnomes in the Commedia Dell’Arte.
[It] was an an early form of professional theatre, originating from Italy, that was popular in Europe from the 16th through the 18th century.- wiki
The themes of the Commedia Dell’Arte was sex, love, jealousy, and old age. The Commedia Dell’Arte has four stock characters and several supplemental characters.
Among the supplemental characters we find Tartaglia “The Stutterer”. This is one of the first depictions of stuttering in culture.
Tartaglia – “The Stutterer”
Tartaglia is always an old man, who in reality doesn’t stutter. The character usually appears as one of the lovers. Tartaglia’res social status varies. Sometimes he is a lawyer, sometimes a servant but the dramatist Carlo Gozzi turned him into a statesman and he has since remained such.
The figures of a stutterer was later well portrayed in Italian comedies of the 18th century. The smallest irregular sound movements with an irregular timed cesura are characteristics for stutterers on the stage – certainly the stutterer has learnt no valid overall form for the sound. – Stuttering in History and Culture
The character appears clean shaven, bald, and wearing a large felt hat with ruff. On his face we find a mask of the finest leather. The mast covers the upper half of his face. Also he has glasses. His coat is green, with yellow stripes. On his feet he wears oversized shoes. He carries a sword.
But why the long face? Geoge Catlin (1796-1872) gave the answer to that questions.
Sleeping with your mouth open
According to Stuttering in History and Culture, the face and other parts of the body are associated with stuttering. In the 19th century it was “common knowledge” that grimaces was not a consequence of irregular speech. It was it’s cause.
The illustrator George Catlin made the grimaces his point in his work Shut your mouth and save your life. Catlin thought that stuttering was caused by mouthbreathing with open lips while sleeping hence the mask of Tartaglia.
From a long and careless habit, the wires of his upper jaw have lost their spring – he sleeps with his mouth open during the night, and during the day he has not the power to keep it shut. By the hanging of his under jaw, a counter-effort arches his brows, impairing the characteristic expression of the eyes, and giving an aspect of indecision and insipidity to the whole face. The lips, separated, with currents of alternate cold and heated air passing over them, become parched and feverish, of a cherry red, and swollen to an unnatural thickness, and a pestiferous breath is constantly exhaled from between them: and in eight cases of ten of these instances (for the world is full of them), if you asked, ‘What is the matter?’ the reply would be that – ‘I stut-t-t-t-tut-h’utter!’…’…’ – Stuttering in History and Culture
Stuttering is grotesque in culture. Better to walk on the other side of the pavement if you spot a person from the 19th century who stutter sometimes.
How about we paint stuttering blocks? – great idea, right?
As mentioned stuttering is not usually depicted in culture. If it is, most times it is stereotipical. But in 1436/38 the Baudouin de Lannoy ordered a portrait by the painter Jan van Eyck.
Baldwin of Lannoy was a Flemish statesman and ambassador for Philip the Good. In Stuttering in History and Culture we find this description of the portrait:
His picture shows him looking upwards avoiding the viewers gaze – something typically found in stutterers. His brow is furrowed and his lips pursed. His right hand is tense as it holds his staff of office which he is using as a speech aid – stutterers are often helped in their fluency by gesturing with something. The genius of van Eyck is to exactly portray the moment when Lannoy, as a stutterer, is blocking. – Stuttering in History and Culture
Van Eyck was a genius at portraing people as they were. Times has changed since the time of van Eyck. Today people who sometimes stutter are portrayed in movies.
Stuttering in movies
My personal favorite film about stuttering is the 12-minute short-film Stutterer (2015) by Benjamin Cleary. It portrays a young man, working with typography, whose inner thoughts are rendered mute because of severe stuttering. The man in desperate need of a way to communicate learns sign language. Sign language also functions as a way to avoid unwanted and unprepared socializing.
I like the film because it depicts in a very real way the struggles a person who sometimes stutter faces in terms of getting the words out. What more is that I have read on different forums people wanting to learn sign language exactly because they stutter. The man in the film has an entire conversation going on all the time. Words upon words upon sentences upon paragraphs and almost entire books. All the words in his head that can’t come out the way intended. I’ve been there. Awful.
Another movie about stuttering is The King’s Speech (2010). I havn’t had the pleasure to watch it yet but I intend to do so when it’s on Netflix in Denmark.
According to Dejareviewer the role of stuttering in the movie is to test the hero.
The King’s Speech uses stuttering as an instrument to test its hero. Albert wants to be a great leader for the sake of the British people and the world in their fight against fascism. But he can’t be that leader until he confronts his painful childhood memories and other deep-seated doubts. His stutter is an expression of his inner demons that he must find creative means to overcome with the help of a trusted friend.
Tell me what you think of stuttering in culture
Have you seen The King’s Speech? What do you think of it? And is there anywhere in culture that you have seen stuttering portrayed? Log in with Facebook or Google and post your comment down below this article.
You’ve read about stuttering in culture – Now what?
To achieve normal conversations I suggest you begin reading: