Lisping letters

David Sedaris’s entertaining collection of essays entitled Me Talk Pretty One Day begins with a story about his first encounters with a speech therapist to correct his lisp. She made a great show of enunciating her own sparkling s‘s, Sedaris writes, and the effect was profoundly irritating. […] If I wanted to spend the rest of my life as David Thedarith, then so be it. She, however, was going to be called Miss Chrissy Samson.

Sedaris italicizes pretty much every s that Miss Samson pronounces. He correctly italicizes several c‘s that are pronounced as [s] (certified, December, fiancé), but there are three interesting mistakes to note here on phonoloblog.

  1. Although (nearly) all s‘s that are pronounced as [z] are italicized (colleges, is, does) — which I assume Sedaris also lisped — no z‘s are italicized. Of Sedaris’s tongue, Miss Samson says: “It’s just plain lazy.”
  2. An instance of c is italicized when it is pronounced [ʃ]: Especially. By contrast, the one time sh comes up in Miss Samson’s speech, it’s not italicized (Asheville). I don’t know if or how a lisping problem affects [ʃ], but there is at the very least an inconsistency here. (See note below.)
  3. All three instances of x, pronounced [ks], are not italicized: mixer, six, next.

It’s quite possible that Miss Samson was simply an incompetent speech therapist, but keep in mind that Sedaris is recalling events from the 5th grade; the dialogue was reinvented and the italics were added where Sedaris thought they were necessary. But I also think that at least some of the mistakes were due to an overzealous copy editor, not to some lack of linguistic sophistication on Sedaris’s part.

My evidence is this. The mixer mistake is found in the context of Sedaris’s last session with Miss Samson. Realizing that Sedaris has decided to simply avoid pronouncing s‘s, Miss Samson is pronouncing as many s‘s as possible.

“I thought that this afternoon we might let loose and have a party, you and I. How does that sound?” She reached into her desk drawer and withdrew a festive tin of cookies. “Here, have one. I made them myself from scratch and, boy, was [sic] it a mess! Do you ever make cookies?”

I lied, saying that no, I never had.

“Well, it’s hard work,” she said. “Especially if you don’t have a mixer.”

I think Miss Samson (or Sedaris) put that last sentence in not only for the s (and, perhaps mistakenly, the c) in Especially, but also for the x in mixer. I’m betting that a copy editor misunderstood that and changed it. (Mr. Sedaris, if you’re reading this: care to weigh in? Write to phonoloblog#gmail|com.)

Also of potential interest to readers of phonoloblog and Language Log is the important “back story” in this Sedaris essay: the lisp as gay shibboleth.

A more appropriate marker [for Miss Samson’s office door] would have read FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA. We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues. […] Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage and choral careers?

(On the issue of “phonetic gaydar”, see here, here, and here, all commenting on this article.)


There’s an interesting final point to add about [ʃ]. Like I said, I don’t know enough about lisps to know if or how they affect this consonant, but Sedaris purposely avoids an instance of sh when he says to Miss Samson: “On the final day of the year we take down the pine tree in our living room and eat marine life.”