About the presenter: Terry Dartnall is Head of Artificial Intelligence in the School of Computing and Information Technology, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. He has a PhD in philosophy from Otago, an MLitt in philosophy and a postgraduate diploma in linguistics from Edinburgh, an MSc in Artificial Intelligence from Sussex and a BA Hons in philosophy from Bristol. His academic research is in the foundations of Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science, and the related areas of philosophy, as well as in human and machine creativity. He likes science fiction, rock climbing and red wine. He lives in Brisbane with his wife and son.

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

Passing As Fluent

by Terry Dartnall
from Brisbane, AUSTRALIA

I have been a popular and successful university teacher for more than thirty years.  I have held fellowships at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the Australian National University in Canberra, and Sussex University in the UK.  I have held senior positions at Adelaide University, Australia and the National University of Singapore, and I am now the Head of Artificial Intelligence at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.  I have had the privilege of travelling the world to share my research interests with my friends and colleagues.  I have enjoyed teaching, although I have enjoyed some sorts of teaching more than others.  I will come back to this in a moment. 

I have also been a covert stutterer all my life.  I am so covert that I didn’t discuss my stuttering with anyone until I was more than thirty years old.  Then, finally, I mentioned it to my girlfriend—which took a great effort on my part.  She was surprised, because she really didn’t know that I stuttered. 

Everyone that I have told has been surprised.  When we had been together for many years I finally told my wife, Wendy.  She believed me, but she did so with difficulty, because (she said) she had never heard me stutter.  Now it was my turn to be surprised.  I am good at hiding my stutter, but I do stutter and trip up, and clutter my words, sometimes.  Surely she had heard me do this.  No, she said, she really hadn’t heard it.

On one occasion I inadvertently recorded myself on the telephone (something had gone wrong with the answering machine).  I thought I was stuttering at the time and when I played back the recording, I was.  There it was, as large as life!

“Do you see what I mean?” I said.  “Isn’t that dreadful?”

“Not particularly,” she said.  “It sounds all right to me.”

I think it did sound OK to her.  I don’t think she was patronising me.

I began seeing a psychiatrist about ten years ago for stress-related problems.  I was having panic attacks at night and would wake up feeling that my heart had stopped and that I couldn’t breathe.  I am sure that these attacks were related to my stammer.  We made absolutely no progress for five years, and then I got up the courage and told him about my stammer.  And he didn’t believe me!  I was amazed.  I had been seeing him for stress-related problems all these years, and when I finally told him what I thought was causing the stress, he didn’t believe me.  So nothing happened, and more years went by.  Then I persuaded him to refer me to a speech therapist.  She picked the stammer at once.  (That surprised me—I didn’t think I was that transparent!)  My psychiatrist phoned her and said, “What do you make of this?  He thinks he has a stammer.”  “He does have a stammer,” the therapist said.  My psychiatrist—who, to add to the confusion, has a stammer himself—now admits that I do have a stammer, but says I have a hysterical reaction towards it.  He may be quite right about that. 

I have related these anecdotes as a way of showing how very covert I am, and how I can pass as fluent, most of the time, anyway.  I turn sixty this year, and have only mentioned my stammer to a handful of people—my then girlfriend, my wife, my psychiatrist, and the speech therapist.  I have never mentioned it to our children and I strongly suspect that they don’t know.  I had no contact with other stutterers until I was on research leave at Smith College in Massachusetts last year.  Then I got in touch with the stuttering community and came across the word ‘covert’ for the first time.  I discovered that I wasn’t alone.

Now… if I was an overt stammerer I would probably be wondering what all the fuss is about.  I would think, “What’s he got to complain about?  His stammer’s not very bad!”

I completely understand this sentiment.  My stammer isn’t very bad, and I am glad that I am not an overt stutterer.  But there is another side to the covert story.  Some of us can pass as fluent much of the time, but we live in abject terror of being found out.  I probably won’t start to stammer in lectures now.  I have coped for thirty years and will probably cope for the next five or so, until I retire.  But some of the 200 students I lecture in first year, and some of the 80 I lecture in second year, come through to do honours with me.  Then we are in a small room, in a group of 5 or 6, for 2 to 3 hours of intensive discussion, week after week, for 13 weeks.  And then I am no longer easy-going and fluent.  I do not stammer very much, but my brain is going at 300 mph, word-avoiding, ducking and weaving.  I am seriously frightened that I will stutter in front of them.  And it has happened.  I have difficulty with ‘re-’ words, like ‘religion’ and ‘representation.’ And it so happens that representations are a central, unavoidable topic in the areas I teach at this level.  There is even something called ‘representational redescription,’ which, surprisingly, I have less trouble with than the word ‘representation’ itself.  Sometimes I stutter on such words.  And when I do, my world falls apart.  I feel it collapsing about my head.  I am caught in an endless spiral of ‘re-re-re-re-s,’ and I can’t pull out of it.  I am out of control.  My senses are overloaded.  And afterwards I feel foolish and unmasked.  I feel that I have been exposed as an impostor.  I have lost my confidence, and now I am going to have a different relationship with these people.  It’s tough.  It may seem trivial and silly, but it’s very, very tough.

That’s the downside to covert stuttering.  The higher we fly, the harder we fall.  The more fluent we appear to be—and are, for long periods—the harder it is when we land on our backsides.

So what should we do?  Should we carry on trying to pass ourselves off as fluent—or should we ‘come out and own up’ to our stammering status? 

I think that this is a difficult question, and I don’t know the answer.  Most people in the stammering community think we should ‘come out’, because this will enable us to accept our stammer, rather than hiding it.  This makes a lot of sense.  We feel guilty.  We feel ashamed.  We feel that we are impostors, and we’re afraid of being found out.  So it makes a lot of sense to be open about it from the beginning. 

The fact remains, however, that many coverts don’t want to declare their status.  And there are good reasons for this as well.  If we can pass as fluent, at least most of the time, why shouldn’t we do so?  Nobody likes to stammer, so if we can avoid stammering—if we can avoid publicly stammering, regardless of the turmoil within—why shouldn’t we do so?  Overt stammerers sometimes use Speech Easy devices, and I am sure that if there was a Speech Easy device that provided full fluency, such stammers would use it.  Then they would pass as fluent.  In a sense they would be fluent.  As a thought experiment we can imagine a situation in which a totally efficient Speech Easy device is implanted in the ear, rather like a cochlear implant for deaf people.  Arguably, someone with a cochlear implant is no longer deaf, and, by the same token, someone with a surgically implanted Speech Easy device would no longer have a stammer.  I am not saying that there is such a device, of course, or that there ever will be.  But if there was such a devise it would be foolish to say, “Own up to having a stammer—don’t use the device!” just as it would be foolish to say, “Own up to being deaf—don’t use a hearing aid!”  So why should covert stammers ‘own up’ to having a stammer, if we can avoid stammering? 

I suppose the answer is:  because our avoidance mechanisms aren’t reliable, so that we are always afraid of being found out.

But the waters are murky here.  Suppose that our avoidance mechanisms were reliable, so that we never stammered, and suppose, what’s more, that we knew they were reliable, so that we felt relaxed about our speech and were not afraid of being found out.  Then—surely—we would be foolish not to use our avoidance mechanisms …

But the waters are murky.  What does it mean to say that our avoidance mechanisms are reliable, but that we still have a stammer?  If our avoidance mechanisms were reliable we wouldn’t have a stammer!  I am assuming, of course, that the mechanisms are reliable in the sense that we really could pass as fluent, and not, for instance, that we just didn’t talk in certain situations.  So what does it mean to say that our avoidance mechanisms are reliable, but that we still have a stammer?  Perhaps it means that we have difficulty in pronouncing some words, but that we know that we can find synonyms.  Or perhaps it means that we have difficulty with some sentence constructions, but know we can find others.  Or perhaps it means that we can pass as fluent in all the social situations that matter, but there are some unimportant and avoidable situations in which we can’t cope.  (Lecturing comes easily to me, but I am no good on panels, when difficult questions come at you out of left field.)

I don’t have any answers.  But I do think that these questions shed light on something that at least some coverts implicitly believe—that if our avoidance mechanisms (perhaps I should say our coping mechanisms) were more efficient we would stammer less; and if we stammered less we would become more confident… and if we became more confident our speech would improve.  There is no known cure for stammering, but some people do seem to ‘grow out of it’.  I assume that we don’t have their testimony, because they have moved on—they have climbed the ladder and kicked it away behind them.  Could it be that they acquired coping mechanisms that gave them increasing levels of confidence that fed back into their fluency, until their stuttering faded away?  I think that I am always striving for something like this, either consciously or unconsciously—and I have achieved it with my lecturing.  I am confident when I lecture.  I am not afraid.  And so I don’t stutter.  (Projecting into a lecture theatre helps as well.)  I imagine that other coverts are similar—but I do not know, of course.  Many of us go through tantalising periods of fluency, and I am surely not alone in hoping that one day one of these periods will last forever.  Is this self-delusion, or could it happen?  Can our coping mechanisms give us the confidence to speak better, so that we are caught in the updraft of a virtuous circle that will lift us out of our stammering?

I will finish on an upbeat note.

It is easy to feel defeated and depressed by our problems.  I have already said that I had to see a psychiatrist for stress-related problems, and I am sure that my stammer is a major part of my stress.  But there is another side to the coin.  Rather than feeling defeated by the problem, we can look at how much we have achieved in spite of it—how much we have achieved when what comes easily to others is so difficult for us.  The poet Michael McClure said:

Freedom is to speak.  And I fear to form

What is air and may be made in a minute.[1]

We have lived with this fear all our lives.  But we have still achieved.  All of us have achieved.  Perhaps we would have achieved more without the stammer, but that isn’t the right perspective.  The right perspective is to see what we have achieved, in spite of the stammer, and how much of an achievement that really is.  I think that we should focus on this, and feel good about ourselves.



Computing and Information Technology

Griffith University

Nathan, Brisbane, Queensland 4111





[1] Michael McClure (1961), “Logos: Knout,” in G. Baro, ed., ‘Beat’ Poets. London: Vista Books.

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