The Gopher’s Whistled S

By Pam Marshalla

Q: What does an SLP call a distorted /s/ phoneme that whistles, like the gopher in Winnie-the-Pooh? Is it considered a lisp?

The term “lisp” has gone through many changes throughout the centuries, and it depends upon whom you read as to what it means.

In the 1800’s, some writers used the term “lisp” to refer to any problems with the sibilants. Others used the term to mean any and all speech deficits, including all problems of voice, resonance, prosody, fluency, and articulation.

In 1947, Van Riper defined “lisping” as “a disorder of the sibilant sounds, especially and z” (Van Riper, 1947, p. 20). He divided this group into several categories: (1) the “lingua or frontal lisp” characterized by the substitution of the th consonants; (2) the “mushy lisp” which was his term for the lateral lisp; (3) the “occluded lisp” which was the term he used for a substitution of t/s and d/z; and (4) the “nasal snort” which resulting from making an s or z through the nose.

In 1956, Berry and Eisenson wrote, “Strictly speaking, any distorted sibilant sound is a lisped sound” (p. 145). They discussed: (1) the “central s-lisp” made by placing the tongue too far forward; (2) the “lateral s-lisp” made by allowing a lateral escape of air, (3) the “prolonged sibilant or whistling s-lisp” made with prolonged and tense air that results in a whistle, and (4) the “recessive s-lisp” made with a “sluggish” tongue that pulls back into the retroflex position.

I classify lisps by their oral-motor patterns, and I use the term “classic frontal lisp” to refer to a sibilant produced with interdental tongue placement. I also write about the “jaw-protruded lisp,” “the deep-trough lisp,” “the lateral-jaw lisp,” the “prognathic-jaw lisp,” and so forth.

I notice that three important modern texts on articulation and phonology do not even list the term “lisp” in their topic indexes! (Bernthal and Bankson, 2004; Pena-Brooks and Hedge, 2000; Bauman-Wangler, 2004).

What an historical mess we have! It would be nice if ASHA formed a committee to give standard names to all of these. For now, I think you can call it a lisp if you want to, or you can simply call it a whistled S.


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