Did I Stutter or Did I Stammer?
Did I Stutter or Did I Stammer?
An Investigation to Inform Stuttering Therapy and Stammering Therapy for Adults
So… What is the difference between a stutter and a stammer?
Well the first question that is important to answer is- why does a difference matter? For many people (not just people who stutter or stammer) having a name or diagnosis helps them feel more in control or like they have a better understanding of the concept in question. If that is the solace you seek in finding a difference between the words stuttering and stammering- stop here- you will not find it in this post or anywhere else in scientific literature.
Because functionally there is no difference between the words. Both stutter and stammer are used interchangeably in the world of speech-language pathology to describe a speech disorder in which a person presents with “dysfluent,” halted, and/or repetitive patterns in their speech. That being said, the words are different, and whenever there are two different words in the same language that mean the same thing- our nature is to reject this coincidence and embark on a journey to explain away the similarities. I think this quotation by Alan Cruse sums it up nicely:
"Natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum"
So let’s take a closer look at my experience with "stutter" vs. "stammer"
Many people who stutter or stammer have asked if there is a difference in meaning between the words. They will ask me to tell them whether, in my professional opinion, they are “a person who stammers” or “a person who stutters.” In some cases, they have even developed their own definitions or read novels by people like David Mitchell who insist that “Most people think stuttering and stammering are the same but they’re as different as diarrhoea and constipation.” (taken from “Black Swan Green”) In this novel, and in many articles that can be found by searching Google for “Stammering vs. Stuttering,” there is a suggestion that the names are related but not synonymous- in fact, in cases like Mitchell’s definitions, it is apparent that he would argue that stuttering and stammering are closer to antonyms than synonyms.
I will be honest- the first client who sat in my office and declared they had a “stammer” confused me. I went to school at the University of Toronto and had never heard the term “stammer” in any of my speech pathology training. I rejected the possibility that both words were the exact same (as is our obsessively categorizing nature as humans) and began to make assumptions about characteristics or uses for the two words that were different. “Stutter” sounds like getting stuck in a loop to me- like repetitive speech patterns (di-di-di-did I stutter). “Stammer” sounds like just plain getting stuck- difficulty getting words out altogether. Completely irrational and not based in any facts or research, but nevertheless my mind burrowed between these two words in an attempt to extract some differences. That is not to say it was going to impact my treatment decisions in anyway- but I was clearly uncomfortable without searching for some sort of distinction.
Then another client came in using this terminology, and another, and another. At this point, my passionate curiosity for linguistics and etymology (the origin of words) got the best of me. I hit the research hard.
Here’s what I found out about stammering vs. stuttering
Originated in Old English from the word stamerian meaning “stumble.” Resources I could find suggest that this word originated first as a noun in the late 18th century. Prior to that, there appears to be evidence from other languages of similar verbs to “stammering” in languages such as Middle Dutch and Dutch stameren, Old High German stammalon, and German stammeln, suggested to be related to the adjective forms in Old Frisian and German stumm meaning “mute.” Around 1950-1960 there was a notable decline in the use of the word stammer in North America as it was replaced by the word stutter. Now, the most common uses of stammer as it relates to someone’s speech are in clinical practice and literature from the UK, Ireland, and India (according to stammering.org- an excellent resource for more information on stuttering or stammering).
Supposedly Germanic in origin and a combination of stut(t) in English with the German word stossen (meaning to strike against). Interestingly, in contrast to the origin of the word stammer, stutter originated first as a verb in the 1560s. It is suggested that before then (in the late 14th century) the Middle English word for stutter was stutten. It was not until approximately 1854 that stutter was used as a noun. Today, the most common uses of stutter as it relates to someone’s speech are in clinical practice and literature from North America and Australia. When I researched a little more into this word I started finding related or origin words that were similar to how people who stutter describe their experience:
-German: stutzen meaning to hesitate or to cut short
-Dutch: stuiten meaning to stop or to arrest
-Proto-germanic: staut- meaning to push or thrust
-Middle Low German: stoten meaning to collide
So, while the use of these words in modern speech-language pathology suggest that stuttering and stammering are the same, it is always interesting to think about the origin of different words-particularly if they appear to be used in similar ways. In this origin story for example, we learned that the origins of these words (stutter and stammer) are somewhat unique but that both words likely came from the description of experiences of people who stuttered, stammered, or observed these patterns in the speech of others.
This acts as a reminder to both speech therapists and people seeking speech therapy alike to never get bogged down by a simple one-word diagnosis. We must look beyond to the characteristics and a deeper understanding of the speech to ensure appropriate and informed stuttering (or stammering) assessment and treatment.
For more information on the evidence-based stuttering therapy (or stammering therapy) offered at Toronto Adult Speech Clinic, click here.
You can also read more details on stuttering and stammering from the resources that helped inform this post below: