The Writer’s Speech

In an interview with Fresh Air, author David Mitchell talks about the stammer he had since his childhood. He talks about a technique to avoid stuttering that I also use, and how it made him a better writer:

One of the strategies, which you meet quite early on in your career as a stammerer, is you autocue sentences ahead of time. You see what words are coming up, and say right now I’d have difficulties with words beginning with S. If I, certainly as a younger person, if I saw an S word was approaching then I would try and reengineer that sentence to avoid needing that S word. And this teaches you how language can be employed many, many different ways to say the same thing.

It is because of this trick that most people I talk to have no inkling of my speech impediment, which I would still describe as severe.

But Mitchell has one advantage that I usually don’t have: The English language. Substituting words you can’t pronounce without stammering is only as easy as it is to find a substitute. And I have found that it’s a lot harder in German. So instead I have to rely on fillers (äh, ähm), pauses (frequently awkward) and feigning momentary amnesia.* So people still don’t know I stutter but now they think I’m confused and forgetful. (Which is also true, but that’s a different story…)

Mitchell goes on to talk about why it is he has no problem speaking fluently to animals:

I think, and you may have some speech therapists listening to this program who could have a different point of view, but it’s to do with what you think is going on in the listener’s head. If you can have a certain militancy about it, if you can think that, you know, I frankly don’t care if I’m about to stammer or not. I don’t care if this person thinks I’m weird. I don’t care if this person thinks any less of me, then miraculously, kind of the fingers of the stammer loosen and suddenly, you’re more fluent again. Obviously, an animal isn’t thinking in these terms. So when you’re speaking to an animal you don’t stammer.

This is also why it’s good to be upfront about it. If there’s no question before you start that, hey I am a stammerer, it’s out in the open and I may well stammer in this conversation, if that’s there before the conversation starts, then as often as not, the stammer will be a lot lighter and looser in that conversation.

Again, I have found this to be true for me as well. The difficulty I will have when speaking is in direct correlation to the person I am speaking to, how I feel about them, and how I think they feel about me. This was easily observed in my school days, when I would have a relatively easy time speaking in one period (to one teacher) and then barely get out any sounds in the next (to another). I don’t think I ever stuttered worse than when I was talking to my father but I usually have no problems speaking to people I feel superior to – not that there are many of those. [And, no, just because I don’t stutter when I’m talking to you doesn’t mean that I feel superior to you. Maybe if you’d never caught me using any of my tricks (as described above), you’d have grounds to worry…]

*) I do this a lot more often than I’d like to. I pretend not to recall the names of people or movies or songs, which are all impossible to simply “substitute” with a different word. Feel free to call me out on this if I ever do it in conversation with you.

2 thoughts on “The Writer’s Speech

  1. Ich könnte fürchterlich daneben liegen, aber mir ist so als hätte ich mal gelernt dass die deutsche Sprache einen deutlich größeren Wortschatz als die englische hat?
    Es sei denn du meinst das man auf Englisch eh jedes zweite Wort durch “stuff” ersetzen und “like” eigentlich vor jedes andere Wort stellen kann

    • Also eine kurze Google-Suche ergab keine eindeutigen Zahlen aber diverse Seiten die den englischen Wortschatz als wesentlich größer angeben als den deutschen sowie die Aussage “German has one of the smallest base vocabularies of any language in the world” (leider ohne Quellenangabe).

      Aber unabhängig davon (oder gerade deswegen?) empfinde ich persönlich Englisch als eine sehr viel einfachere Sprache als Deutsch. Auch ohne das Stottern habe ich oft Probleme, meine Gedanken in deutsche Worte zu fassen während sich englische leicht finden lassen.

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