The King’s Speech (The Award-winning Film): The Untold Theory of Stuttering

Stuttering. Stammering. The speech disturbance of abnormal fluency. In all the talk about such a vocal phenomenon regarding the movie, The King’s Speech, I have not heard the explanation that I am familiar with. I learned one theory in a university course many years ago. If it since has been discredited, I do not know. At least, it has plausability.

The name associated with the theory is Wendell Johnson. He had a graduate student try to induce stuttering in an experimental study involving orphan children. The children were hurt psychologically, and subsequently monetarily compensated, when the graduate student spent some months in 1939 conditioning them to stutter through negative reinforcement of their normal speech imperfections. The study was generally called “The Monster Study” by some who condemned it for using orphan chhildren to prove a theory. I do not know that the study in any way precludes the theory from serious consideration. (Remember, a “theory” is defined as a statement that attempts to account for all known facts, and if it does, the statement can be taken as a truth.)

These empirical observations are the facts from which Wendell Johnson probably derived his theoretical statement. At a very young age, children are normally nonfluent. Everyone has heard a child run into the house to mama or daddy very excited about having seen or heard something or someone strange or unusual and breathlessly trying to convey a description of the thing or event. That has been regarded as normal nonfluency which children soon outgrow.


Most parents ignore the child’s nonfluency, tolerating it for what it is, normal disfluency. But a certain kind of parent will ask the child to stop, take a breath, and speak slowly what he has to say. According to the theory, that special kind of parent, observed Johnson, may have an occupation that requires fluent speech, like a preacher, or king, or lawyer. That special parent is taking particular note of the child’s manner of delivering the child’s idea, calling to the attention of the child the “how” not the “what” of the child’s speech, because the father becomes anxious and wants his child to become as fluent as he has found necessary in his occupation. Of course, the child’s nonfluency is normal, but has become abnormal in the father’s view, and the child may internalize the father’s anxiety. It was noted in the material I read that preachers’ sons had a greater tendency toward becoming a “stutterer”. Facts like that led to Wendell Johnson’s theory. I am open to correction of any misunderstanding I may have on this issue. The scientific world said,”The data offered no proof of Johnson’s subsequent theory that stuttering begins, not in the child’s mouth but in the parent’s ear — i.e., that it is the well-meaning parent’s effort to help the child avoid what the parent has labelled ‘stuttering’ (but is in fact within the range of normal speech) that contributes to what ultimately becomes the problem diagnosed as stuttering.” (Look that up on the web site, Wikipedia.

I have not heard the theory mentioned in reference to the new movie that has an Oscar nomination and may win the Oscar; the film led the Golden Globes with seven nominations.

I once directed a play in an old opera house downtown with a cast of adults from the town. I cast one part with the speech-correction-specialist for the city schools. He was himself a stutterer. He memorized his lines and delivered them with nary a stutter. And did a great job of acting.

BTW: I have not yet seen the movie.

Today(3-20-11), I finally saw the movie. A wonderful cinamatic experience! Especially since I wrote this essay about it. Of course, I was looking for anything in the film that would give credibility for the working hypothesis of Wendell Johnson’s views. The film portrayed the king-father as the type of parent who could easily create a stammerer, switching the son’s handedness and terribly rough, over-anxious “handling” of his young boy at a normal non-fluency age, out of whom so much was expected and along with all that the differential treatment of the brothers. The king created a stammerer out of his anxiety for the boy as a future king. I believe that the makers of the film also were working with knowledge of that same hypothesis, as far as I could see, and they had to know the boy’s history. (I am not a speech therapist. I modified other more normal communication behaviors as a teacher and had taken one class in speech correction for the classroom teacher.)

I must report a disturbance, to me at least, during the film. I am a great one for the emotion of empathy in the world as a vital part of everyone’s emotional constitution. BUT, during the film, I learned that some people may be over-endowed with empathy that must be demonstrated audibly as an audience response to events in the film: “O-o-o-o-h!” I do it quietly, in the self-talk of my thinking habits, as an event in my deliberative mind. With that lady, the demonstration must be vocally audible. So that everyone knows? Can she help it? Probably not. Did it interfere with my concentration on the film? I suppose, though very slightly as an interesting phenomenon of another’s experience of the film. Were her interjections well attuned to my own elevated empathic moments? No.


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