# The English Lisp

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Although I would guess that fewer than 1% of North Americans speak with a lisp, after living for 13 years in England I would have to say that about 10% of the people there speak with a lisp, often in such an extreme form that they are nearly incompwehensiboo. I wonder why a lisp is so common there but so rare elsewhere?

One possible answer is that the English are psychologically fixated on the security and comfort they experienced as young children, and for this reason they subconsciously seek to reassure themselves by speaking baby talk all the time, the chief characteristic of which is a lisp. This is consistent with a documentary I once saw in England on different advertising techniques in England and the rest of the world. A certain cold medicine had been marketed quite successfully everywhere in the world with commercials presenting a "Get tough with your cold" message, but when this same message was run in England, the product failed to sell. After a while the company changed its ad campaign in England to "Baby your cold," and then the product sold as well as it had elsewhere in the world. The lesson from this seems to be that something about the English psyche clings to the infantile stage of development, and that this accounts for the predominance of lisping in English speaking.

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"after living for 13 years in England I would have to say that about 10% of the people there speak with a lisp, often in such an extreme form that they are nearly incompwehensiboo."

I have lived in England a lot longer than that and I doubt that there are anything like that many people with a lisp.

Do you actually think a society could get by if one in 10 couldn't make themselves understood?

Before launching off into some explanation of this "observation" I think you need to show some sort of evidence that it's plausible never mind true.

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I'm not quite sure if you're describing a lisp or describing the mispronunciation of the letter 'R'

a lisp being when the letter 'S', is pronounced as a 'Th' sound; as in "thience forumth" (instead of Science forums)

The word you typed in your post - incompwehensiboo - suggests someone who cannot pronounce their Rs

Which is indeed more common in the UK than in the USA. The TV celebrity Jonathan Ross would be a chief exponent of this. he pronounces his own name more like Woss or Ywoss.

i don't know anyone with a lisp, but I do know a few who mispronounce their 'R's

I don't see how having an unconscious desire to talk baby talk, or to subconsciously be infantile would explain why English people

misspronounce their Rs

It's more likely that the way English people are taught to pronounce words beginning with R, to be the reason why they're more commonly mispronounced in England than in America.

The R sound in English - as in 'Really' or 'Ramp'- has the tongue lying quite flat at the back with the front of the tongue close to the front or the pallet, making it very similar to the way 'Y' is pronounced - as in 'Yacht' or 'Yesterday'. Whereas with an American accent that back of the tongue is closer to the pallet, distinguishing it from the 'Y' sound, so that children who are learning English in America would be less likely to mispronounce their 'R's

I'd also like to refute the allegation that The English have such a subconscious desire to talk baby talk, or to prefer somehow a more childlike state of mind.

As an English man who has spent a fair amount of time in the states; I've always found that Americans - although far friendlier, polite and sociable than their English counterparts - tend to have a more naive childlike persona and world view than the Brits.

A view echoed by other Brits who have returned from the states. It's more evident in U.S cities than in the small towns though.

Edited by tomgwyther
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The pronunciation of r as w is also a class thing. It's commoner in those who are, or wish to be seen as being, upper class.

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This thread reminds me of the word "foliage".

When I was in the fourth grade, in Florida, we read the book, "Where The Red Fern Grows". That was my first encounter of the word. To my young fourth grade mind it read, "fol-EYE-ij". I was corrected in class, because I was reading out loud and the correct pronunciation was "FOIL-ij".

To this day I still pronounce it "FOIL-ij" instead of "fol-EE-ij".

I speculate that whoever taught my teacher had dyslexia. This person had such authority that everyone around me pronounced it the same way until I moved to NC and met one of my best friends, who had a Master's in English Lit and at the age of 29, told me otherwise. I will pronounce it correctly around people that I am trying to impress, but around the house I still say "FOIL-ij" which greatly grates on my Canadian husband's nerves.

This little anecdote reminds me of the "Lisp King Ferdinand" and how the Castilian dialect was formed. Only different.

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Another possible source for the English lisp is the desire to seem upper class by altering pronunciation to make your English seem more French, since there was a long tradition in England of the Normans being culturally superior to the poor Saxons, whose consonants sounded so harsh and Germanic. This has even crept into the way some English names are pronounced, such as Magdalene College at Oxford and at Cambridge being pronounced as 'Maudlin College.'

I may have experienced more of the English lisp since I lived only in English academic communities, where a snobbish accent was more cherished than in the normal world, and the lisp may have a snobbish implication.

It is difficult to prove my assertion that it is much more common in England than in America, but there is a phrase, "the English lisp," though I know of no comparable phrase such as "the Australian lisp" or "the American lisp." If you watch BBC World News you will hear more than a few news presenters with very strong lisps, but you never see one on American news programs, but in America it would be seen as a bizarre oddity, while in England it is sufficiently common to seem acceptable. How many American politicians have you ever seen with a strong lisp? None, because they would be laughed out of their business. But in England, politicians often have a strong lisp and it doesn't seem to cause anyone to find them psychotically transfixed by their childhood and its baby talk, such as Michael Hesseltine, for example.

Finally, I have nothing against the British! They are peculiar, and much more different from Americans than even Germans or Austrians are, but I can get along with most of them better than I can get along with people from most foreign countries.

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By far the most likely explanation for the "phenomenon" is that it's a product of Marat's imagination.

He also ignores other bits of reality

" How many American politicians have you ever seen with a strong lisp? None, because they would be laughed out of their business."

Well, Rudy for one.

"Notably the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, has this type of lisp."

I have an alternative explanation or two.

England has a lot of regional accents, some of these are quite difficult to understand.

Marat has come here and, through a lack of familliarity, has failed to understand them.

Rather than accept his own failure, he has imagined an epidemic of lisping so he can blame someone else.

It is certainly possible that the "public school" accent is common in the groups he has encountered and he has mistaken a class distinction shibboleth for a lisp.

Edited by John Cuthber
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There seems some confusion here. Lisping refers to using a "th" or a wet, cheeky sound instead of an "s" or a "z". The "incompwehensiboo" kind of speech is referred to as rhotacism, meaning the inability to pronounce "r" (and I suppose "l").

Britain does seem to have more than its share of public figures with speech impediments than America has -- for example, politicians George VI, Winston Churchill, etc and actors Matthew Goode, Boris Karloff, etc. Perhaps British culture more readily accepts speech impediments than American culture does, and so, also does not see them as "wrong" and in need of correction. A society led by royalty does not vote its rulers in or out, and so, it may accept the shortcomings of its rulers (and thus, of society in general) compared to a democratic society. And historically, the British seem to make life more accessible/livable for the disabled.

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A society led by royalty does not vote its rulers in or out, and so, it may accept the shortcomings of its rulers (and thus, of society in general) compared to a democratic society. And historically, the British seem to make life more accessible/livable for the disabled.

True, Americans are very unforgiving of politicians and any little quirk a politician has is sure to hurt him somehow. For example during the Bush years it became a common joke to poke fun at George's pronunciation of the word "nuclear". Bush would say "nookyoolar" will most here in the states say "nooklear". Not a huge difference but entertaining to American audiences [ruthless mob].

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There seems some confusion here. Lisping refers to using a "th" or a wet, cheeky sound instead of an "s" or a "z". The "incompwehensiboo" kind of speech is referred to as rhotacism, meaning the inability to pronounce "r" (and I suppose "l").

Britain does seem to have more than its share of public figures with speech impediments than America has -- for example, politicians George VI, Winston Churchill, etc and actors Matthew Goode, Boris Karloff, etc. Perhaps British culture more readily accepts speech impediments than American culture does, and so, also does not see them as "wrong" and in need of correction. A society led by royalty does not vote its rulers in or out, and so, it may accept the shortcomings of its rulers (and thus, of society in general) compared to a democratic society. And historically, the British seem to make life more accessible/livable for the disabled.

Great post - just one thing, Britain (the UK) IS a democratic country; just not a republic but instead a constitutional monarchy. And to answer Marat's original point generalisation of speech patterns in a country with such a wide spread of accents and dialects is very dangerous.

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Without any real data on the incidence of these speech impediments (any of which may be referred to colloquially as a lisp) there is nothing but guesswork and bias here.

So, lets test what looks like the only really testable claim here.

Marat's assertion that "If you watch BBC World News you will hear more than a few news presenters with very strong lisps, "

Those newscasts are on-line.

Please list a few of these lisping presenters, with web addresses.

Incidentally, even if it's true that we have lots of them (there are certainly some) that just means we are more tolerant of variety.

The same goes with our observation that you don't need "perfect" teeth to be a productive member of society.

Incidentally, Re.

"It is difficult to prove my assertion that it is much more common in England than in America, but there is a phrase, "the English lisp," though I know of no comparable phrase such as "the Australian lisp" or "the American lisp." "

There is the so called "Chinese" lisp (OK, technically, its rhotacism rather than a lisp but that's what it's called)

Are you going to psychoanalyse one of the largest groups on the planet on the basis of one speech trait?

The reverse of the "English lisp" is common among French speakers trying to learn English. They pronounce th as either s or z.

Are you going to speculate wildly that they all want to be geriatrics?

God alone knows what he would have made of this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_lisp

Can I also point out the irony of a criticism of what is essentially lazy pronunciation from a representative of the country that turned

"How do you do, you all?" into "Howdy yall"?

On a lighter note

Edited by John Cuthber
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Try listening to Zeinab Bedawi for a while on BBC World News. It affects me like chalk screeching on a chalk board.

But I think we do have a much longer list already, just on a cursory consideration, of Brits with lisps than of prominent people in other countries with the same speech impediment: Churchill, Karloff, Hesseltine, George VI, Field Marshall Montgomery, etc. I can still remember my bewilderment on first arriving at High Table in a British college and the server asking me if I wanted any "appoo cwumboo." I thought I heard 'apple' somewhere in there so I was tempted to say 'yes,' but then again, since I had just consumed a fairly stale, gray pigeon as the main course, I was hesitant.

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So, on the basis of a waiter, a foreigner, and 5 people who are all dead you are prepared to judge an entire country.

If this were not a science site that might be OK. As it is, it's a bit silly.

Edited by John Cuthber
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JC

Don't think that Heseltine is dead btw. Here is a clip of him a few weeks ago - he does have mild rhotacism (hope this is correct spelling).

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Oops! sorry, I was in a hurry this morning.

Can we pretend I said "So, on the basis of a waiter, a foreigner, and 5 people who are nearly all dead you are prepared to judge an entire country.

If this were not a science site that might be OK. As it is, it's a bit silly."

Also, now I have had a bit more time I tried this

"Try listening to Zeinab Bedawi for a while on BBC World News. It affects me like chalk screeching on a chalk board."

She has got a slight lisp (strictly a sibilant S rather than a lisp); big deal.

I'm glad that tiny errors in speech don't move me to slander whole countries. (fortunately, miss-spelling Badawi doesn't trouble me much either). Perhaps the fact that she is Oxford educated explains it, though I doubt it.

I also now have time to point out that Marat failed to answer my other points.

i.e.

There is the so called "Chinese" lisp (OK, technically, its rhotacism rather than a lisp but that's what it's called)

Are you going to psychoanalyse one of the largest groups on the planet on the basis of one speech trait?

and

The reverse of the "English lisp" is common among French speakers trying to learn English. They pronounce th as either s or z.

Are you going to speculate wildly that they all want to be geriatrics?

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Michael Hesseltine ("Hessootine") is not dead, although he has a heart attack every week or so. Perhaps one way to assess the overall size of the English lisp phenomenon is to note the unique social response to it in England. While news presenters, politicians, major public figures with a lisp would be laughed off the public stage in America, in England no one even seems to notice that they have a lisp, since it is such a common phenomenon there.

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Lisp : a speech defect that involves pronouncing s' like voiceless th' and z' like voiced th'

There is no one on the BBC or in the British Parliament with a lisp. not that I've every heard. I know this to be true because i have watched/listened to the BBC, politicians and all for about 30 years. I've never heard anyone lisp.

On the contrary

The video link above is a clip from Stewart Little, where the young American boy can clearly be heard speaking with a lisp

(about 35 second in, when he says the line "It Works!"

Edited by tomgwyther
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Michael Hesseltine ("Hessootine") is not dead, although he has a heart attack every week or so. Perhaps one way to assess the overall size of the English lisp phenomenon is to note the unique social response to it in England. While news presenters, politicians, major public figures with a lisp would be laughed off the public stage in America, in England no one even seems to notice that they have a lisp, since it is such a common phenomenon there.

That way you could get to grips with the fact that at least one US politician has a lisp and that I already apologised for the error about Hesseltine.

Then perhaps you might care to answer the questions I asked; twice.

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That way you could get to grips with the fact that at least one US politician has a lisp and that I already apologised for the error about Hesseltine.

Then perhaps you might care to answer the questions I asked; twice.

A friend of mine from Sweden entered into an impromptu tryst with a young lady living about a mile below him on the next farm. Startled by some hunters walking toward them, they both jumped up and ran their seperate ways. Next day my friend decided the least he could do would be to introduce himself. He meets her by the fence again and proceeds with a bashful salutation by saying. HI there, I'm "Thor"! Smiling demurely... she replies, "Your'e thore"!, I'm soo sthore I can hardly pi-s. Well, you get the idea. Actually, she lisps! A cousin, twice remove on my Dads side. Possibly French extraction? Edited by rigney
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• 3 months later...

This string may be getting a bit stale and so perhaps this comment will disappear into nothingness, but you guys are kidding, right ? You really believe that the English don't lisp more commonly than others ?

While I agree that Marat's original psychoanalysis of the lisp is a bit much, what is obvious is that the English lisp (broadly defined as both the sibilant 's' and the replacement of 'r' with 'w') is very common, and it is an indicia of upper-class membership. This is a total no-brainer. The fact that brits fail to see this is further evidence that they remain mired in a class hierarchy the manifestations of which remain invisible to them much of the time. (By the way, isn't everyone excited by the upcoming Wedding of the Century! )

You really think the prevalence of lisps in English public figures is just about greater "tolerance" for difference ? Not a chance - the above comment about the Castilian lisp is far more to the point.

I am a mere colonial (just call me Captain Canada) with all of the limitations that implies; but really folks, you need to stop pretending about these things (though no doubt there can be charm even in such pretence). There's nothing much wrong with a class lisp (at least from my perspective as an outsider), so why the denial ?

Try this link as an example - http://video.ft.com/v/901495886001/INET-Conference-Simon-Johnson

As you can see, Gillian Tett at the FT does yeoman's work in the class lisp category - the lisp, with its implied aloofness, plus her plentiful brains, above average good looks and conversational warmth definitely make for a high hotness quotient. As the man said, it's all good - lisp all you like. (Who was she interviewing again?)

Carry on then... back to enjoying lashes and lashes of ginger beer. (Let's do pretend none of this happened, shall we?)

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Who thays we Englith have a lithp? I must thay I have nether notithed it!

Edited by TonyMcC
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My understanding.

Language is complicated by a few things. You learn to emulate sounds by hearing them as a baby. If one of your parents has an atypical way of saying certain sounds then the baby may well learn to as well through simple repetition and nurture.

It could also be a cognitive and/or auditory dysfunction thing as well , so nature. But when you put the two together it is likely to carry on generationally. I would expect that there might be some visual discrimination things co-existing too. So, if the person, while developing their language omitted the first and last sounds for an example that would be indicative of something cognitive. If that is detected in the early years up to 2 years then early childhood screening is recommended.

The presence of Otitis Media complicates things as well because to a child managing or not managing with it they can hear sounds as though they are garbled through water and importantly through the formative years of language development. That might be affected by social structures if undetected or treatments unavailable.

happy to be corrected on the thoughts expressed.

As far as the class based questions no idea. Never been there. I don't know there is any basis to that.

Edited by Jasper
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What you're hearing is people with non-rhotic accents. England has quite a few regions that speak with a non-rhotic accent.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents

its not a mispronunciation or a speech impediment or insecurities, its an accent.

just like the southern drawl in the US or the nasaly tones of a new yorker.

plenty of non-rhotic accents in the states too.

now ends this foolishness

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Is the OP really serious with this suggestion? Apologies as I haven't read the whole thread but the original post iritated me lol. I've lived in England 1 year (Irish originally) and I can genuinely say of the many hundreds of english people I've met not one had a lisp.

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Thanks, sesos. Some phenomena are so overwhelmingly obvious when you have experienced them every day for 13 years, it is astonishing the way people try to pretend they don't exist. There is even a well-known phrase, 'the English lisp,' but I guess like 'the Spanish guitar,' 'the Gallic shrug,' or 'Russian vodka,' it is just meant to confuse people, since it doesn't correspond to anything real.

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