Stuttering treatment has come along way. Though I remember an incident back in the early 90’s when I was a small fair haired boy. My mom took me to the doctor. “He has the stutters”, mom said. The old man in the white coat looked at me, then at my mom. “I see.”, he said. “Well, what are you going to do about it?”, mom asked. “There is only one way. Surgery. Remove his tonsils. Then he’ll speak fine.”
It never came to that, but I remember it like yesterday. The words surgery in combination with stuttering should never have been connected in the early 1990’s. According to a research paper I finally got my hands on:
[…] James Yearsley (1805-1869) advised removal of the tonsils. All these procedures were abandoned with the dangers of the patient bleeding to death became apparent – and also their failure to cure stuttering. – Stuttering in History and Culture
It was in the late 1800’s the procedure was abandoned. Back then it was common to perform surgery on people who sometimes stutter. But how bad was it? Let’s dive into the magical world of curing stuttering.
Stuttering treatment – or just let others speak for you
Stuttering might be as old as speech itself. Some of the very first accounts of stuttering are recognized among the Egyptians back in 2000 BC.
Dysfluency has been recognized since ancient times. Egyptologists have deciphered two different hieroglyphs depicting stuttering and its dysfluency. The phonetic transcriptions of the hieroglyphics are ketket and nitit meaning “to quake” and “to hesitate”, respectively. When coupled with the Egyptian symbol indicating the mouth, the glyphs both translate “to stutter.” The Egyptians were possibly the first to define stuttering speech, and did it by simple observation. – Understanding Stuttering, Lavid
If the interpretations can be trusted, Moses was a person who sometimes stutters.
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
11 The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
13 But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
14 Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you.15 You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.17 But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.” – Exodus ch. 4, v 10-17
In Moses’s time, the cure was to let other people speak for you.
The tongue is weak – the life and times of Demosthenes
Later on, in the 4th century BC, Demosthenes (384- 322 BC) put pebbles in his mouth and forced himself to have normal conversations. He also trained his voice on the seashore to increase his volume. It was when he met the actor Satyrus, he began with pebbles.
Living as a lawyer and speech-writer Demosthenes was down in the mud with speaking. He had to do it right. But according to H. Yunis, it is probable that Demosthenes suffered Rhotacism, mispronouncing ρ (r) as λ (l). Whatever it may have been Demosthenes suffered from he is thought of as to be one of the first accounts of stuttering and the treatment thereof.
The research paper states that the idea with pebbles to treat stuttering is because the tongue is seen as the weak part of the body. From the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC) that was the main cause.
According to Plutarch, Demosthenes nonetheless undertook a program to overcome his weaknesses and improve his delivery of speech, including his diction, voice, and gesture.
However, he acquired sufficient practice and confidence in speaking, and got a taste of the distinction and power that go with forensic contests, and therefore essayed to come forward and engage in public matters.- source
Demosthenes’s pebbles is but one way stuttering has been sought to be controlled. Throughout time stuttering has been sought treated and controlled in different ways.
Many people thought themselves clever on stuttering. They also did whatever it took. Surgery was the next logical step.
Stuttering treatment of the 18th and 19th century – or let’s see how much we can remove from your mouth
The myth of the tongue being the weak part of the body in relation to stuttering continued. Unfortunately for the people stuttering at that time the logical treatment was surgery of the tongue and mouth.
It began with Pierre Dionis (1650-1718). A Frenchman who taught operative surgery at the Jardin-du-Roi in Paris. In 1707 he presented a variety of instruments to perform surgery as to relieve and cure stuttering. Among the following (Pour la langue et la luette) he also used the above tool (a 17th-century tongue depressor) to hold the tongue in place as to perform surgery on it.
The trick was to make a few cuts into the tongue. Then it would have the freedom to move around in the mouth. And stuttering would be cured! But it didn’t end here because stuttering was of course not cured with Dionis. That didn’t stop other surgeons though.
Surgical therapy was the hottest hot in the 19th century for stuttering treatment. It was the iPhone of the time. The one to give the “iPhone” to all people who stuttered? Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach (1792-1847). According to the research paper, he suggested an operation in 1841 that would relieve the muscular spasm of the person who stuttered. This is very spectacular. The operation
involved the excision of a triangular wedge from the posterior tongue, thus cutting through the lingual musculature and its nerve supply. – Stuttering in history and culture
What he basically did was to cut off half the tongue. While the survivors of the operation continued to stutter, others bled to death.
Today the operation method is still in use, but not with stuttering treatment. It’s called hemiglossectomy and is used for treating oral cancer when all other treatments fail.
Others also favored this kind of surgery to the tongue for stuttering treatment. They just thought the best way to do it was to cut right through the skin of the cheeks to reach the tongue. One of those who liked to cut the tongue was Emmert. He also cut through the hypoglossal. The hypoglossal is the 12th cranial nerve that innervates the muscles of the tongue. Cutting through the hypoglossal meant that you lost the ability to move your tongue. You would have problems speaking, eating and swallowing.
Emmert also cut through the orbicularis oris muscles (the lips).
It wasn’t funny to be a person who sometimes stutters in the 18th and 19th century. You would risk dying. But it was “necessary” to perform surgery when people who sometimes stuttered looked like this: “The Stutterer”:
This was the typical costume of the stutterer in the comical theatre of the Renaissance.
Stuttering treatment throughout time
That brings me to this 1997. In 1997 there was an article in NewScience.
It sounds drastic: brain surgery for stuttering. But this speech disorder is severe and disabling. The volunteers have already tried every therapy on offer, says Roger Ingham, a speech pathologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, another member of the team. “Some of the subjects have said quite explicitly,” says Fox, “that they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Also in 2013
a 28-year-old man with persistent developmental stuttering who was treated by bilateral anterior capsulotomy in the People’s Republic of China.- source
Although complete remission of his PDS was not achieved, he could communicate with others more fluently. – source
So we are not quite there yet. Surgery is still being performed. People still stutter sometimes and other people expect it. Better to read Stuttering Habits and learn how to small talk and in general learn to have normal conversations.
Where to go from here?
To achieve normal conversations I suggest you begin reading: