A friend and I were talking (favorably) about someone we know and what a great guy he is. “But,” I said, “It’s hard for me to talk to him. His lisp distracts me.”
“His what?” she asked. “What lisp?”
The above conversation is representative of the common attitude in Israel toward this pervasive speech impediment. I don’t have statistics, but lisping is rampant in the Israeli adult population, so much so that I call it (to myself) the 11th Plague. It’s surprisingly tolerated, illustrated by the fact that we’ve had two lisping prime ministers. Yet I can think of only two adult Americans of my acquaintance who lisp. When I explained to my Israeli neighbor that in the States, you could not be elected to any public office — forget the presidency — if you lisped, she was uncomprehending.
My daughter was sitting in on this conversation and accused me of bigotry. My husband equated a lisp with a foreign accent, which should not count against a person. But it’s neither of these; it goes in its own category: It’s neither a deformity nor a birth defect; it’s simply perceived by the American public as a trait that’s inappropriate for someone in public office (or any profession wherein the practitioners face the public) to exhibit*. And it is eminently correctible.
A colleague explained to me that the reason it’s tolerated in Israel is because it carries with it an association of a stereotypically confident, macho IDF general addressing his troops. And as we all know, IDF generals are all but objects of worship in this neighborhood. Funnily, the lisp in the US is associated with infantility, or the exact opposite of an army general.
While the IDF general theory might explain a lot, it does nothing to comfort me or alleviate my distraction when I hear adults lisp — and there are so many here. The worst is when they can’t even pronounce their own names. Doesn’t anyone get it? Or care? We do have speech therapists here; we're not some far-flung outpost in that respect.
I’d be interested in hearing from other Americans whether they’ve noticed the extent of The Lisp, and also from natives of other countries how the lisp — and speech impediments in general — are perceived and handled therein.
* A “proof example” that foreign accents are not in the same category is Henry Kissinger: We Americans don’t mind accents, but we expect our words to be pronounced correctly.