Monday, January 30, 2012

The Medium ith the Methage המכה ה11: השפתות

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.


  1. I do notice it, and I do find it distracting. Not as distracting as the 10 year old kid who can't say "R" properly -- still comes out as a "W." I feel bad for my knee jerk reaction; he's a bright, kind boy, which is all that should matter really, sounds cartoonish to me. I can't stop snickering (in my head, obv) because I keep picturing the scene in The Life of Brian when Pontious Pilot has a speech impediment and calls for the guards to "Welease Wodewick!" Of course, my 4 year old still can't say "R" right, and I think it's adorable. So, double standard, much? But if it continues once he starts Kinder, I am going to look into speech therapy.

  2. Good to know it's not just me, Sonia. And good for you for recognizing an impediment in your own child. My mom is a speech pathologist and my entire childhood echoed with the lament: "The parents are the last to recognize it!"

  3. My theory: Hebrew language causes the speaker to put extra pressure, with their tongue, on the back of their top front teeth. This causes the teeth to protrude a bit, and the speaker to lisp. Crazy?

  4. Not crazy, just illogical. First of all, Hebrew has no "th" sound, although it's theorized that ת *taf* was once pronounced that way. Even if that's so, it's the substitution of "th" for "s" that's the problem.

    As far as the tongue pushing the teeth forward, this is a condition (or habit) called "tongue thrust", which I had and was treated for; but I never lisped. Two separate issues: One is cured with exercises and orthodontia; the other with speech therapy.

  5. I was dating a perfectly suitable guy when I was 18. He gave me all sorts of presents and let me drive his brand-new Impala convertible. He was handsome and smart (a med student) and was SO nice to me...but he had a speech impediment.

    I'd be driving his Impala, and instead of saying, "Make a left turn right here," he'd say, "Make a weft too’un wight he’oh." I felt like I was dating Elmer Fudd and broke up with him. That’s how shallow I was.

    1. Molly, you call it shallow; I call it human: You're allowed to break up with someone for any reason you name; if you couldn't get past this, then it's your prerogative. I suppose if you'd gotten serious with him and there was talk of marriage, you could ask him to correct it (it's not a lisp, by the way, but just as annoying), and if he refused -- walk away.

      You also mentioned he was studying medicine. Can you imagine being treated by a physician who sounded like this? "The pwognothith ith gwim, Mith Eweth". Uh, no. Just no.

  6. When we were teenagers, the way we imitated an Israeli was to talk with a dumb lisp. We had a *shaliach* named Amotz, and we referred to him as Amoth. I think it does come from that whole military/general stereotype.