Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Did Cervantes Stutter?

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Did Cervantes Stutter?

Article excerpt

The exquisite pain of being able to select a word, to think it, to be able to spell it in your head, to be able to imagine yourself saying it, but then finding it impossible to actually say it is exactly the pain of stuttering.


THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WRITTEN literature and its oral forms has long interested scholars. Literary scholars, however, have paid little attention to stuttering and its relationship to literature. The stutterer is keenly aware of the difficult world between the written and the spoken word; between the word on paper and speech itself. (1) The stutterer accords his own speech an extraordinary degree of attention and the stutterer's way of thinking about language differs remarkably from that of a non-stutterer. Indeed, the difficulty that stutterers have in speaking can cause them to focus on written language and inspire literary brilliance.

A few scholars write that Miguel de Cervantes was a stutterer. Cervantes' biographer Luis Astrana Marin (I: 332) briefly explains that Cervantes stuttered as did Aristotle. George Shipley and Adrienne Laskier Martin make passing mention to Cervantes as a stutterer. Recently, the medical historian Angel Rodriguez Cabezas asserts that Cervantes stuttered, but his conclusion has not inspired significant study from literary circles. Biographers generally do not treat the question and no literary scholar has dedicated a full-length study to the question. The following article examines the current state of the question. While I believe that Miguel de Cervantes stuttered, the evidence is scanty. My conclusion is based more on intuition than solid textual evidence. Despite the lack of clear, conclusive evidence, the argument put forth here seeks to establish both the relevance of the condition to his writing and the need for further inquiry.

Perhaps the principal reason that scholars have not given more attention to the question of Cervantes as a stutterer is because of the negative popular stereotypes with stutterers. Stutterers are often connected with the idea of being tontos. To cite one recent example, take the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy's definition of gallego. The primary definition of gallego is a person from Galicia a region in the northwest comer of Spain. But the dictionary lists as a secondary meaning of gallego: "tonto y tartamudo." A 2007 debate in academic circles in Spain began as to whether or not eliminate the dictionary entry (see "Ser"). Negative prejudice against the condition has been both a conscious and unconscious reason that more have not studied the condition as it connects to Cervantes.

Establishing whether or not Cervantes stuttered requires overcoming two major obstacles. First, the meaning of stuttering has never been clear. In addition to negative prejudice, little is known about the condition and, because of that, little has been written on it. (2) Indeed, even today scientists and speech therapists are unsure about the causes and exact meaning of the condition. Scholars can only agree that stuttering is a mysterious condition that straddles the hypothetical line between the physiological and psychological and between the voluntary and involuntary. Second, no systematic descriptions of stutterers exist from the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the literary historian must reconstruct the meaning of stuttering from scratch.

Cervantes suggests that he is a stutterer on three occasions. In the relatively obscure letter from 1577, the Epistola a Miguel Vazquez, Cervantes writes:

   si vuestra intercesion, senor, me ayuda
   a verme ante Filipo arrodillado,
   mi lengua balbuciente y casi muda
   pienso mover en la real presencia. (221; 1. 199)

The poem repeats many verses, with trivial variations, from the first act of El trato de Argel (Stagg 204). This case is no exception as the semi-autobiographical character Saavedra from Cervantes' play El trato de Argel also describes himself with a "lengua balbuciente y casi muda" in the same situation:

si la suerte o si el favor me ayuda a verme ante Filipo arrodillado, mi lengua balbuciente y casi muda, pienso mover en la real presencia . …

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