2003 IFA Congress: Montreal, Canada

Sociolinguistic Investigation into Stuttering Identity

Y. Charlie Watanabe1, Patricia M. Zebrowski2, and Richard Hurtig2
1Nanzan University, 27 Seirei-cho, Seto City, 489-0863, Japan
2Iowa University, 119 WJSHC, Iowa city, IA 52242, USA


Taking seriously the idea that the social aspect plays an important part in the problem of stuttering, this study uses sociolinguistic discourse analysis to bring into relief discursive practices of a person who stutters (S) and his nonstuttering spouse (NS). Aparticular focus is placed on how the participants negotiate the attribution of a problematic characteristic in the stuttering spouse’s interactional behavior. The analysis showed that NS is required to carry out delicate interactional management due to a blurry distinction between S’s personality trait and his network trait. Usefulness of sociolinguistic discourse analysis in stuttering research is also suggested.


  1. Introduction
In the early 1980s, Van Riper (1982) emphasized the significance of the social aspect of stuttering, claiming that “stuttering is not merely a speech impediment; it is an impediment in social living” (pp. 1-2). Subsequently, a group of stuttering researchers started voicing their frustration against the backdrop of all the number-crunching research that focused only on the surface features of stuttering (e.g., disfluency) but not on the “person” who stutters (e.g., Mowrer, 1998; Quesal, 1989; Starkweather, 1999). Their criticism stems from the fact that many stuttering research studies assumed that what mattered in stuttering research was dealing with the surface phenomenon of disfluency. These researchers believe that stuttering is a comprehensive phenomenon that encompasses not only the disfluency (or mechanical) aspect of the problem but also the psychological reactions to disfluency such as avoidance, as well as the identity formed as a “stutterer” as stuttering behaviors develop and become part of the individual. In the current study, a research approach, sociolinguistic discourse analysis, is introduced as a meaningful way to investigate the identity issues in stuttering.

Several studies have been conducted to investigate the identity aspect of PWS by employing a sociological methodology (e.g., Lemert, 1970; Petrunik, 1977; Petrunik & Shearing, 1983), or a social psychological approach (e.g., DiLo1lo et al., 2002; Evesham & Fransella, 1985; Fransella, 1968, 1972). Others used a more general “qualitative” approach such as narrative analysis (as a generic term) (e.g., Boberg & Boberg, 1990; Corcoran & Stewart, 1998). If social living is what is affected in the life of a person who stutters, as Van Riper claims, and if (or because) stuttering is most often considered a problem rooted in the communication aspect of human behavior, an approach which deals with both the social aspect of a person and language in use (Schiffrin, 1987) seems an appropriate choice.

The seminal article on self and identity using a sociolinguistic discourse (more precisely, narrative) analysis was written by Schiffrin (1996). She uses sociologist Erving Goffman’s idea of footing and sociolinguist William Labov’s narrative analysis to analyze how family members in conversation position themselves and demonstrate their identities vis-a-vis their families in the telling of a narrative. This study effectively shows how participants of a narrative telling use footing changes in the story world and how one’s identity in the process of telling a narrative is displayed and is challenged in the matrix of social expectations and conditions. Along with other researchers of narrative, Schiffrin emphasizes that identity is neither categorical nor fixed but is discursively displayed and constructed (Capps & Ochs, 1995; Hadden & Lester, 1978; Hamilton, 1996; Johnstone, .996; Polkingdorne, 1991; Schiffrin, 1997; Troemel-Ploetz, 1992). The current study investigates the negotiation process of “stutterer identity” in spousal interaction, particularly with a focus on the negotiation of character attribution.

  1. Methodology

The data set consists of 11 couples where one of the members is a PWS. Each semi-structured interview1 with first author lasted for 60 to 90 minutes, which was audio- and videotaped. These interactions were later transcribed for qualitative analysis. The tapes and transcriptions are studiedmany times since the researcher is expected to be immersed in the data while transcribing, which process is essential in allowing certain interactional characteristics to emerge2 In this study, a single interactional segment was chosen for detailed analysis3.


  1. Analysis
As Boberg and Boberg (1990) indicated, stuttering plays a significant role in the life of a spouse married to someone who stutters. In the following, for lack of space, a few small sections are presented from one particular couple (both males) where a stuttering spouse (S) and his nonstuttering spouse (NS) are engaged in a negotiation process regarding S’s behavioral characteristic in the presence of the researcher (C). Throughout the segment, the topic is S’s “unfavorable character” and S and NS negotiate the attribution of it.

Prior to the following section, S claims that stutterers are sly because they think ahead of their interlocutors to avoid stuttering. In response, NS makes a connection between S’s description and NS’s impression of what S often does when interacting with him. 4, 5

In the above interchange, character negotiation is taking place where the pronouns are used intricately to form various participation frameworks (Goffman, 1981; Schiffrin, 1987); NS-S (lines 1, 14); N S-C (line 2, 16); S-NS(-C) (lines 3, 9). NS’s shift of participation framework from NS-S to NS-C creates an arena where NS makes C the ratified recipient of negative information about his spouse (line 2), suggesting a framework of sharing of a complaint. Although this statement is addressed to C instead of S, therefore not functioning as a direct threat of face for S, S subsequently takes a footing of an author/principal (Goffman, 1981) to make a generalized statement which is expected to serve as an account for his “character flaw” (line 3): If you’re a stutterer; you always interrupt, which may be interpreted as a justification for the trait. In this line, S attributes the flaw to his social network of shared identity (i.e., stutterers) (Hadden & Lester, 1978), thus forming solidarity with the network while sharing the responsibility for the act with it. Further, the introduction of his membership category (Sacks, 1995), with the linguistic choices he makes, even hints power relationship with nonmembers as well as solidarity with co-members.

Specifically, his linguistic choices create the impression that it is a universally accepted fact: If (generic) you COPULA X, then (generic) you ALWAYS do Y. Whether or not this statement endorses such a characteristic, it presents a type of a membership identity statement. S’s subsequent statement regarding himself (I’m very very impatient in line 9) creates a type of “step-wise attribution” taking a logical step in explaining how his “ï aw  should be located in the scheme of his social world and his place within it. In sum, S uses such resources as linguistic construction, affiliation with a social network, and power/solidarity relationship to explain and justify how the part of him that mars his being as someone with moral character is as is.

In response to S’s such move, in lines 14 and 16, NS first questions the network identity S had suggested and switches participation framework to NS-C to express his frustration with S’s judgmentalness and “jump-to-quick-conclusion” tendency to C.

Immediately following this segment, S expresses an irony of stutterer-nonstutterer conversation: stutterers are at the mercy of their listeners because they need their listeners’ patience, and yet S himself is impatient.


What is of note here is NS’s continuing effort to “correctly” attribute S’s character flaw in the context of S’s unique personality trait and a network trait. In the previous segment (line 14), NS made a statement that suggested a possible distinction between S’s personality and a stuttering effect. In line 23, NS tries to single S out of his network regarding his impatient character. NS further seeks a solution by bringing in an outsider who is supposed to be an expert on stuttering (C) to provide an answer to his query (line 25): Is that true? Do you observe that?

As a spouse of someone who stutters, NS is walking a delicate line: If what NS perceives to be rude or inappropriate in S’s everyday behavior is a common “consequence” or “symptom” of stuttering, NS would not feel it is appropriate to criticize S for the behavior, since stuttering Should be considered a type of disability, for which S should not be held responsible. However, if the negative trait is, in fact, S’s personal problem, then NS may be entitled to criticize S and/or the behavior. In the above interchanges, NS employs an interactional resource of shifting participation frameworks to present his frustration regarding the problematic behavior observed in his spouse and to negotiate its legitimacy through describing the behavior, questioning its attribution and seeking an answer from outside the dyad. Similarly, S takes part in the negotiation process by changing footing as a way to speak on behalf of his network and membership category, thus taking the negotiation outside the family unit.

  1. Discussion
Goffman (1959) suggested that we try to present ourselves as someone with moral character in interaction. This may hold true, obviously, in this case, for both S and NS. For S, such interactional characteristics as interrupting and jumping to quick conclusions (particularly when they are wrong) are not considered socially favorable. S then has the option of denying it or justifying it, and S opts for the latter by forming solidarity with his network identity of stutterers.

The solidarity with the network identity serves as an account and a type of justification for the behavior. This move presents a socially delicate shield in front of NS. If the network cited were a socially unaccepted entity, then NS would be able to criticize the network trait together with the network per se, with the help of social support. However, the network cited by S is a group of people with a speech problem, and therefore, NS would not feel comfortable criticizing it, particularly as someone with moral character. In another couple, there was a similar interchange where the nonstuttering spouse tells a story of her stuttering spouse’s interactionally “rude” behavior. In this interchange again, the nonstuttering spouse states that her stuttering husband has attributed the behavior to his stuttering. In this discourse, the wife treads on a delicate line to discern where the problem actually belongs: Who or what is really to blame?

The attribution of S’s behavioral problem (at least as it is seen by NS) is a delicate issue because of a blurry distinction posed in the context of personality trait and network trait. Such blurry distinctions can be confusing to the nonstuttering interactant (and possibly also to the stuttering person). As we present ourselves in interaction, our identities are neither categorical nor fixed (Schiffrin, 1997), but instead different facets of our social memberships are presented and used to make a point, show power, or form solidarity. In the case of interaction with people who stutter, particularly in an intimate relationship, not only can the presentation of the self be complex, but how one responds to the presentation can also be quite delicate. Therefore, nonstuttering spouses may be required to carry out intricate interactional management of social identities and traits to avoid threatening the face and identity of his/her stuttering spouse as well as that of him/herself.

The discourse of stuttering and nonstuttering spouses also shows negotiations of spousal roles, which can be affected by the speech problem and by stutterer behaviors such as avoidance. This is an equally delicate subject for reasons of face, power and solidarity, and therefore, the way the issue is negotiated in interaction also merits attention. Discourse is a social act in which participants pursue and seek reasons for social roles. Therefore, as a way to investigate the social aspect of stuttering not merely as a speech impediment but as a way of life (Conture, 1999; Fransella, 1970; Quesal, 1989), sociolinguistic discourse analysis is believed to be a promising avenue.

1 In sociolinguistic discourse analysis, naturally occurring interaction is considered ideal, but due to the need for topic control, a semi-structured interview was decided to be the optimal format.
2Much further details on the methodology are available in Watanabe (2001).
3The significance of and beliefs related to micro-analytic, qualitative analysis of interactional segments are eloquently explained in Tetnowski & Damico (2001).
4Normally, sociolinguistic discourse data are presented in bigger segments to show interactional moves, but in this article, cut-up segments are presented to Save space.
5The transcription notation â_˜[“ indicates utterance initiation timing, either latching onto or overlapping. The preceding utterance. [to C(NS)] indicates that C is the primary recipient while NS is the secondary recipient of the talk.

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