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Stammering

In 1994, at the International Child Language Seminar I proposed a way of reconciling psychological and physical aspects of stammering by a defect with respect to a buffer, already proposed by other authors. Such a defect helps to explain five things.

First, stammering is only attested when language is already well-established, most often in early childhood, sometimes later, but never on first words.

Second, like most disorders of speech and language, stammering affects more boys than girls, and often runs in families.

Third, the speech of normal speakers is massively disrupted by hearing themselves speak over a given delay, what is known as ‘Delayed Auditory Feedback’ or DAF; in the terminology of those who treat stammering, they block violently; for most speakers, the greatest effect is from a delay of around a third of a second; but for most stammerers, the effect is reversed; they become more fluent. This has been tested and confirmed in numerous studies of fluent speakers and stammerers. The scale of the effect varies across individuals. But the critical time hovers at around a third of a second. The timing is clearly hard-wired and universal across languages.

Fouth, there is the equivalent of stammering amongst native users of American Sign Language, albeit with only one tenth of the prevalence of stammering in those using voice (America is the only country with enough native signers and other demographic information to get reliable statistics about a phenomenon which only occurs at a rate of one or two per thousand signers).

Fifth, there is such a thing as what is known as ‘covert stammering’ where the speaker has the characteristic self-awareness of stammering, but without displaying any of the characteristic behaviours such as ‘blocking’.

One singular utility of such a buffer is the process evidenced in language after language, allowing words like who, what, where, to be correctly understood when they are pronounced at the beginning of sentences like “Where do you think they said I might have put the car keys?” and understood at the opposite end after any number of intervening clauses. This does not happen in all languages. But even in languages in which the Wh element seemingly stays put, there is evidence of a shifting which is just not pronounced.

A third of a second is just enough for a syllable.

If this thinking is on the right lines, the buffer stores a small amount of shifted material until it can be interpreted.