About the presenter: Trudy Stewart decided to be a speech and language therapist when she was 13 and has not regretted a moment of it. Infact she has so much fun she is reluctant to call what she does "work"! She obtained her undergraduate degree in Glasgow, Scotland and then moved to Leeds. On a rotary scholarship she travelled to Michigan State and got a Masters degree from there and then later her Ph.D back in Leeds. She works in St James' University Hospital seeing children and adults who stammer and carrying out research on issues arising from clinical practice. Metaphorically speaking she has been described separately by those who have come to know her as a goshawk (a rare bird of prey), a butterfly and a missionary. Personally she thinks of herself as someone in motion - constantly learning, reflecting and striving to be good enough.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Trudy Stewart before October 22, 2003.

Metaphors of stammering: what's yours?

by Trudy Stewart
from England, UK

This discussion paper is based on a paper presented at the DeMontfort Symposium in Dublin 2003 and on a subsequent paper for the Journal of Clinical Speech & Language Studies (in press).


The use of metaphor is all around us, wherever language is used in whatever form, written or verbal, metaphors can be found. Some metaphors have entered the English language as idioms and now have a universally accepted meaning e.g. a side splitting joke, being two faced, escaping by the skin of your teeth. There is also some evidence that metaphors function differently from other parts of language. Bonnaud et al (2002) found that metaphors have a special status in the semantic memory. But why should metaphor be considered in relation to stammering?

This paper will elaborate the nature of metaphor and explore areas of significance. It will then consider the use of metaphor within the field of stammering and consider ways in which it may be used to inform those who stammer and those interested in stammering.

Define metaphor:

Metaphor is a figure of speech considered by many to be at the core of creativity. It is defined in the Oxford dictionary as: "the application of name or description to something to which it is not literally applicable". Put more simply a metaphor relates something to something else in a way that goes further than other grammatical notions. For example, a simile relates two elements by saying there are similar or alike e.g. I'm going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." However, a metaphor goes further either by saying that something IS something else that it could not normally be or by suggesting that something appears, sounds or behaves in the same way as something else e.g. Richard the Lion heart. There is also a sub type of metaphor called personification in which an object or idea is described in human terms:

"Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatched-eaves run;" (Keats)
Thus, metaphors break the rules; they take us out of the normal, acceptable ways of looking at things and invite us to access new versions of reality. In so doing we have to use our imagination and allow a loosening of our own "normal" constructions. Taking my previous example, in order to see an English king in the same way as an animal's circulatory organ, the reader is required to suspend the notion that man is not a solitary organ or indeed a beast of the plains of Africa. Instead we relate the critical aspects of a lion's heart, that of strength, endurance, courage, to an individual man's behaviour, appearance and/or relationships and we understand them from that perspective. This is an active, creative process.

Applying metaphors to the construction of self

As individuals we are often engaged in using metaphors to describe, explain or elaborate our selves and our experiences to ourselves and others. The experience of fear is one that can often be elaborated very vividly through the use of metaphor: "I was rooted to the spot." "My blood ran cold." At various points in my life people have used metaphors to describe the person they construe me to be; I have been described on different occasions as a chrysalis, a missionary and a goshawk. In order to understand what sense these people have made of me I must temporarily suspend my own elaborations of myself and allow a different understanding to be considered. I must also entertain their particular construction of missionary rather than my own. For example, the idea of being a missionary does not appeal if I construe it as someone who imposes a particular set of beliefs on others irrespective of their own culture, social structures and life style. However, if the construction is about the nature of giving, a willingness to be in the same place as others for a greater good then I am more able to enter into that process as one that validates me.

Use in stammering

Metaphors have also been applied to stammering and people who stammer. Interestingly in the literature there are articles written by those who stammer which frequently contain some of the most memorable metaphors. Jock Carlisle wrote of his "Tangled Tongue" (1985), and Van Riper described the person who stammers as a "giant in chains" (1982). Perhaps the frequently used metaphor for stammering itself is the iceberg described by Joseph Sheehan (1975). Here Sheehan uses the iceberg metaphor to draw attention to the complexity of stammering. On the surface the listener observes the outward signs of stammering but is unaware that under the surface other perhaps more complex and difficult issues lie hidden. It is interesting to note that while the more obvious issues of this metaphor relate to the physical attributes of the iceberg, the surface features, the depth, size and volume, other more subtle features are not openly considered. Perhaps in construing stammering as an iceberg we may include emotional issues of coldness, isolation and consider the impact the dominating structure of the iceberg makes within its environment.

Use of metaphor in therapy to elaborate meaning

Metaphors may have a role to play within the therapeutic process. As Mair (1977) describes:

"Through metaphor, new possibilities of meaning, of living, can be entered and explored, new costumes, new plays, new parts, new access to the scripts we did not know we were being spoken by." (p18) If individuals who stammer can see things from an alternative perspective and enter into that position wholeheartedly, then they may gain greater understanding. This change of view can lead to a freeing of vision, in Kellyian terms (Kelly 1955) a loosening of construing, and an ability to see other options that may include a way out of their problem position. By being something different or someone differently and elaborating that view individuals can be enlightened and freed. This notion fits very well with the Personal Construct therapy ideas of "person as a scientist" (Kelly 1955) who experiments with new ways of being, tests out his hypotheses and moves forward on the basis of the results of the experimentation.

The iceberg metaphor is frequently used in the clinical setting with those who stammer. Therapists discuss "lowering the water line" as a way of highlighting the need to be more open about stammering generally. Alternatively, therapists may encourage some individuals to work on the more covert aspects of their difficulties, stressing the need to manage the "root" of the stammer or the hidden part of the iceberg in order to achieve more long-term change.

However, as therapy can be a reflective process, we should not ignore the impact of metaphor on the therapist. A person who stammers may introduce me, his therapist, to a metaphor of his situation and this may increase my understanding of the issues involved and the wider issues of stammering as an experience of which I have no person knowledge. One adult who stammered described his experience of therapy and the risks involved in desensitisation and increasing openness as that of Indiana Jones during his search for the Holy Grail. At one point Indiana, emerging from a mountain tunnel, found himself on the edge of a precipice facing a drop of some considerable proportions. In the same way this individual saw himself at a precipice with no sign of the path in front of him. Just as Indiana had done, he described how his therapeutic processes required him to walk out from the precipice not knowing what would happen and to take steps when he could not predict their outcome. As his therapist this image increased my understanding of the threat therapy posed for him and the need to make the process feel as supported and safe as possible.

A therapist's metaphor

If I find the metaphors' of others informative and interesting I wonder if my own metaphors, which speak of me and my construction processes, are of interest of others?

Lets experiment and find out.

I have a metaphor of a therapeutic process with an individual who stammers and it is this:

I start with a blank piece of white paper of indeterminable size. First it is washed with water, in the same way an artist might apply a wash before he begins a watercolour picture. This washing wipes clean the paper of any marks or residues from previous encounters with colour and it also creates a surface that is receptive to new applications of colour. This paper is then placed between me and the other person (PWS), as is a container with various hues and textures of colour (i.e. wax, water colour, oil paints, pastels etc). There is also a tub with brushes of several types and thickness from which to choose.

I look and consider the other person and then select a colour, using a brush if required, and apply the colour to the paper. The colour, type of paint or crayon, and the particular mark I make is dependant on the feelings, and/or thoughts I have, as well as those I construe from the person in front of me. However, the mark I make always starts from the side of the paper closest to me and moves in some way towards the side of the paper closest to the other person.

I then invite the PWS to make his/her mark on the paper. They choose materials and colour which best reflect their thoughts and feelings in the moment. Their mark generally will start from their side of the paper and move towards mine. In some instances there is a meeting of colour in the middle of the paper which, because of the nature of the paper, the materials and the way they have been applied, will create a colour and shape that is different from either of the 2 individual marks that were made by each person. Thus, something new is generated that contains each of the individual thoughts, feelings and constructions but is more than the individual colours on their own.

What sense can I make of this for myself? If I try and consider what this says about me and my understanding of therapy then a number of ideas come to mind: I wonder now what sense others make of my metaphor and invite your comments.

Also I invite you to consider your own metaphor of stammering and/or therapy and let us explore together what they might contribute to our understanding of stammering.


Bonnaud, V., Gil, R. & Ingrand, P. (2002). Metaphorical and non-metaphorical links: a behavioural and ERP study in young and elderly adults. Neurophysiol Clin, 32, 4, 258-268.

Carlisle, J. A. (1985). Tangled Tongue: Living with stutter. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Keats, J. (1795-1821). To Autumn. In The Nation's Favourite Poems. (1998). London: BBC Publications.

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton

Mair, M. M. (1977). Metaphors for living. In A.W. Landfield (Ed.), The Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. PCT, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. Oxford Dictionary. (1995). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sheehan, J.G. (1975). Conflict theory and avoidance-reduction therapy. In J. Eisenson (Ed.), Stuttering: A second symposium. New York: Harper & Row.

Van Riper, C. (1982). The Nature of Stuttering. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Trudy Stewart before October 22, 2003.

September 2, 2003