Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

How the King Overcame His Stutter

This weekend, the movie "The King's Speech" gets its nationwide release in the United States, and it's already getting talked about as a front-runner for the Oscars. It has also received a great deal of buzz in the speech therapy community for its sensitive and credible depiction of King George VI's speech impediment and the methods that his therapist Lionel Logue used to overcome it. I take a look at the movie and the real-life story in my latest On Language column, appearing in the Oscars issue of the New York Times Magazine.

For the column, I got to interview the screenwriter, David Seidler, who drew from his own experiences growing up with a stutter to inform the movie's portrayal of "Bertie" (a.k.a., Prince Albert Duke of York, the man who precipitously ascended to the British throne after the abdication of his brother Edward). I also spoke to Colin Firth, whose moving performance in the role of Bertie could very well garner him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue also does a marvelous job as the unconventional speech therapist who breaks down Bertie's inhibitions using such vocal techniques as tongue twisters.

Firth and Rush enlivened Seidler's screenplay by consulting some newly discovered primary documents about the relationship of Bertie and Logue. A large amount of Logue's diaries, correspondence and other materials had been gathering dust in the attics of his descendants until recently. His grandson, Mark Logue, has drawn on this material for a book published in conjunction with the movie by Sterling Publishing Co., also called The King's Speech.

One such document, reproduced on the Times website accompanying the On Language column, shows the draft of George VI's famous 1939 "eve of war" speech, annotated in Logue's hand with lines marking pauses and occasional words substituted to avoid problematic sounds. For instance, the speech (reportedly drafted by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty) originally had the sentence, "Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between my Government and those who are now our enemies." Logue scratched out "my Government" and replaced the words with "ourselves," likely to avoid the "g" sound at the beginning of "Government." The King often stumbled on words starting with /g/ and /k/ (sounds that phoneticians call "velar plosives").

Here are examples of Logue's word substitutions from a later radio address, given by George VI on Christmas 1944:

In this draft (courtesy of the Logue Archive), you can see Logue has replaced calamities with disasters and goal with end, again focusing on those initial velar plosives. This type of word substitution is no longer a common practice among speech therapists, according to those I consulted for the column — instead, therapists might work on breaking the word down into constituent syllables to overcome difficulties with particular phonemes. But Logue's techniques seem to have been effective with his royal patient Bertie, likely because they helped instill a relationship of trust and familiarity that helped the King relax and concentrate on his public speaking. As I note in the column, Bertie was never "cured" of his stutter, but the way that Logue built rapport with him made all the difference.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 10th 2010, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Very interesting article, especially as you talk about speech therapy. I am curious to know what other consonants might be difficult for people which stutter.
Friday December 10th 2010, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Antonia: The screenwriter, David Seidler, did an interview with StutterTalk here. You can hear him talk about how he had trouble with word-initial /h/ which led him to dread answering the phone with "Hello" until he realized he could just answer with his name.
Friday December 10th 2010, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Fascinating, Ben! I'll want to see this movie, but I'll have to wait for it on the net or on DVD...

I had a classmate with a stutter... Someone suggested shouting.

I've also heard that speaking in another language might help some. I suppose it depends on the sounds that the stutterer cannot manage.

Mel Tillis didn't stutter when singing, and when he eventually lost his stutter, or it decreased, it upset the rest of his act.

But for most people, it isn't a matter for comedy, it's serious business and painful.

I'd like to see the techniques used for the King.

There's a story about a serviceman who didn't reply to the King when he was asked a question. Later, he explained that he too stuttered and was afraid to have the King think he was mimicking him.
Sunday December 12th 2010, 7:32 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent and interesting piece, inspired by a first class movie which I highly recommend to all. The piece of paper with a draft of the King's speech with the therapists edits for ease of speaking is fascinating.

I saw the substitution of "disasters" for "calamities" and thought, "oh, a more common word for a less common one, also less of a tongue twister," but I never thought of "initial velar plosives"!!

The degree to which language has been studied and analyzed and named is always amazing to me. As a general rule, I'm happy to stick with alliteration, rhythm, phrasing, vocal tone, etc, but it's always ear and mind-opening to sense the aural microscope of advanced language study.
Tuesday December 14th 2010, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Jerome R.
I used the same method to reduce my stuttering.
Tuesday December 14th 2010, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Thank you Ben. It is splendid that the therapy works so well, as listening to David Seidler one would never think that he was ever stuttering. I can hardly wait to see the movie.

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