Stuttering, or stammering, as the British call it (as anyone who has seen "The King's Speech" would know), affects almost 1 percent of the world's population, according to the National Stuttering Association.
That figure includes about 3 million Americans. But while Colin Firth's stammering King George VI in the multiple Oscar-nominated "The King's Speech" is enticing audiences on its way to possible victory at this year's Feb. 27 Academy Awards presentation, for the average person, "disfluency" is still an ailment that's little understood.
"People who stutter I've spoken with are very happy about the movie's success, because it provides a serious and sympathetic portrayal of stuttering," says William Parry, a speech-language pathologist and founder of the local chapter of the National Stuttering Association. "Previously, the most notable stuttering film character was Porky Pig."
Contrary to what's usually depicted on screen, stuttering is not caused by nervousness, lack of intelligence or emotional problems. "Except for their disfluency, people who stutter are just as normal as everyone else," Parry stresses.
Anyone who has ever had a train of thought derail mid-sentence has experienced a moment of disfluency: A word or sound gets stretched out or repeated, or lost altogether, as the speaker puzzles out an idea or pulls up a memory.
The difference, says Joe Donaher, coordinator of the stuttering program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is that stutterers know exactly what word they want to say. They just can't get it out.
Multiple factors contribute to the onset of stuttering, but in a sentence, it's a "neurodevelopmental speech disorder" (meaning it's based in the brain and occurs during development) that impairs an individual's ability to time and sequence speech, explains Donaher.
Take the case of a soon-to-be monarch charged with addressing an entire nation on the brink of war: In "The King's Speech," Prince Albert reluctantly prepares to become King George VI after his father dies and his brother, Edward, abdicates to wed Wallis Simpson.
As a stutterer, he never expected — or wanted — to be a public figure, and dreads delivering radio speeches. The film follows his struggle to overcome the impediment under the guidance of an unconventional Australian speech therapist.
"The movie is about being persistent and facing challenges. For someone who stutters, challenges can come up in everyday situations," says Donaher. "Asking a question in class, answering the phone, telling a joke — it's all equally daunting."
At CHOP's stuttering program, the severity of the disorder isn't measured by how frequently someone stutters, but by how greatly the person's life is affected.
"We work to build up confidence, so people are able to function better," says Donaher.
Stuttering is most common in kids, with boys twice as likely to stutter as girls, according to the National Institutes of Health. The number of boys who continue to stutter into adulthood is three to four times larger than the number of girls.
Overall, about 5 percent of all children will go through a period of stuttering. For 75 percent of that group, the problem resolves on its own, according to the NIH, which also warns that stuttering that starts after a child is 8 to 10 years old is more likely to stick around.
If it's time to get help, Donaher recommends discussing the problem in an open way.
"Stuttering is very frustrating, but it's something that can be helped a great deal if the speech therapist really understands what stuttering is about," says Parry, who is himself a stutterer, as well as a trial lawyer (he's cut back on practicing law to focus on speech therapy). "A person who stutters is able to achieve a lot of success in life, if given a fair opportunity."
Illustrating his point, he lists some famous people who, like himself and the good king George, are (or were) stutter- ers.
That list includes Charles Darwin, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Tiger Woods, Jimmy Stewart, Andrew Lloyd Webber — and, perhaps one of the most famous of all times, the great biblical leader Moses.
The Philadelphia chapter of the National Stuttering Association (www.stutterblock.com/PhillyNSA.htm) hosts a support group twice a month at the Bala Cynwyd Library.