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October 30, 2007

BehindTheMedspeak: Sigmatism

No, not astigmatism.

And not Six Sigma either, as long as we're on the subject of things it's not.

Sigmatism is "The flaw in pronouncing a sibilant S," wrote C. Claiborne Ray today in her consistently informative, concise and enjoyable weekly "Q&A" feature in the Science section of the New York Times; here's the piece.

    Whence the Whistle?

    Q. Can there be a nutritional or physical reason for the sudden onset of a whistling “S” in an adult’s speech?

    A. The answer is almost certainly physical rather than nutritional, unless the sufferer happened to eat a cavity-causing diet that led to dental work.

    The flaw in pronouncing a sibilant S, which speech therapists call sigmatism, can follow even minor changes to the way the tongue aligns with the teeth. As a result of either too small a gap or too large a gap between the biting edges of the front teeth, the air forced through the gap in pronouncing the S sound can produce an extra whistle.

    In an adult, a newly whistling S is not a result of an inborn defect in the speech mechanism or an error in speaking. Rather, it results from a subtle shift in the mouth that makes old speech habits produce new sounds, speech therapists say. The unwanted whistling or pronounced hissing is especially evident when normal speech is amplified by a microphone.

    Speech exercises can help the speaker adjust to the new alignment and retrieve the accustomed sound. But dentists and dental surgeons should be aware of the risk in tinkering with the intersection where the tongue touches the teeth.


The caption for the video up top: "Charlie Palloy is a real obscurity. Obviously he modeled his style on Russ Columbo, but all we know is that he played guitar, led a band for a while, and recorded for the short-lived Crown label. His careful pronunciation of an 's' borders on the sibilant." — Ian Whitcomb, a well-known performer and music historian.

October 30, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I guess "sigmatism" is an adequately cruel name for it.

Ideally, though, it'd be something like "sissmassitasismus"

Posted by: Daniel Rutter | Oct 31, 2007 3:54:32 AM

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