John Thelwall's Contributions to Speech Science and Speech Therapy

Thelwall's primary emphasis as an elocutionist was to remediate speech impairments. He differed, in this respect from other elocutionists of his time, who focused more on improving the speech and oration of normal speakers.

His shift to speech scientist and speech therapy, while seen as a departure from his previous life, had strong connections with his past. He based his elocutionary philosophies and practices on a variety of sources:

Thelwall lectured regularly on aspects of elocution. His topics included: anatomical aspects of pronunciation, the nature of speech impediments, and oratory as an art form.

Thelwall's elocutionary philosophies

The nature of speech disorders: most impediments are due to problems with repetitive action.

Speech = action

Cognitive constraints: speech can never extend beyond the limits of memory, perception and idea.

Cadence and syllabification principles form the foundation of his therapies

Elocution leads to an active and public life. It, therefore, needs to include a liberal education that values oratory. Thelwall says it this way:

This view of my subject led me to consider the application of my principles to all the higher purposes, and ultimate objects, of a liberal education-to the last finishing and accomplishment of the studies of those ingenuous youths, who look upwards to the most eligible situations of active and public life. And when I critically examine the educational establishments, public and private of my age and country, I thought I perceived that an institution that would properly embrace these objects, was yet to be regarded as a desideratum.(Thelwall 1809, 28, 153)

Thelwall's terminology for different types of speech disorders

Thelwall's ideas about etiology

Speech impediments are caused by: pampering, isolation, cerebral disturbance, idiocy or derangement.

Every stammerer, stutterer, throttler, constipator, involuntarily confounded, and unconscious reiterator of the elements of speech (whatever attainments or failures he may, in other respects, possess) is partially, and to a certain extent, either idiotic, or deranged: for what but derangement can it be called, to be constantly doing a thousand things that we neither intend to do, nor are conscious of doing? nay, are the very reverse of our intention! What, but a species of idiotcy, is it, to be ignorant of the means by which the will is to influence the simplest organs of volition, and (without excuse of palsy, stricture,, or organic privation), to be unable to move a lip, a tongue, or jaw? clinch the teeth, when we are bade to open the mouth! And roll the eyes, when we ought to move the lips! (Thelwall, 1805, p. 68).

Thelwall's treatment strategies

1. His speech therapy's focus was on prosody and articulatory phonetics

2. In Thelwall, (1805) he argues against cutting the frenum of infants. Says should wait to see if the "bridle of the tongue" inhibits speech, if it does, to try exercises, and if that doesn't work, to operate (after age 14 or 15).

3. Thelwall had his students give speeches to one another every week, as a vehicle for elocutionary practice as well as a way to impart a liberal arts education.

It was obvious, at any rate, that the necessity imposed upon these pupils of delivering (with whatever difficulty) once in every week a set speech (written or extemporary, according to the state of the case) upon a given subject, must produce some effect, both in the way of the attainment of knowledge, and the capacity of utterance (Thelwall, 1809, p. 154)

The speeches of his students were about history, and were written and delivered to respond to questions such as the following:

How far back into the historical antiquities of the respective tribes or nations, who have contributed to the population of this country, can we advantageously look for the origin of the particular institutions which are to be regarded as the peculiar advantages of the English constitution? And what are the particular institutions specifically referable to the respective people? (Thelwall, 1809, p. 155).

Thelwall's case descriptions

1. Enunciative (articulatory) defect. In 1801, Thelwall worked with two siblings with "enunciative" defects. They were his first cases and were referred to Thelwall by a hatter in Brecknock, England. In his famous letter to Henry Cline (Thelwall, 1810) Thelwall depicts their problems as "strange unintelligible jargon", "purely enunciative", and "consisting in a sort of hideous obscurity of elementary sound" (Thelwall, 1810, p. 11). (Later in the same volume, Thelwall describes these cases as three children or Mr. Griffiths, the hatter, see Thelwall , 1810, p. 212.)

Assessment: Thelwall first ruled out any physical causes by examining the structure of the "organs of the mouth" (jaw, tongue, frenum, roof of the mouth). He concludes: "I pronounced, therefore, without hesitation, that their Impediments were merely the offspring of habit and inattention." (Thelwall, 1810, p. 12).

Thelwall then goes on to analyze the children's speech and concludes: "That the whole chaos of their speech (for such it very nearly was) consisted in the absolute deficiency of one elementary sound, and the imperfection and confused misapplication of two or three more" (Thelwall, 1810, p. 12).

Therapy: "My first care, therefore was to demonstrate to them the positions and actions of the organs which the imperfect elements were to be formed; which I did with such mixture of grimace and buffoonery, as I thought most likely to impress their rude imaginations. I then gave them, as an exercise, a sentence in which those elements were assembled and reiterated. This I made them repeat after me, again and again, till the imitation was tolerably perfect; and bade them remember it, and repeat it to each other" (Thelwall, 1810, p. 12).

The therapy worked. "The next time I went from my farm to my market town, I found these intelligibly as any of the half Welchified, half Anglicized people of that part of the country (Thelwall, 1810, p. 13).

2. Blind, speechless child. In 1804, Thelwall published a description of a child blind and speechless apparently from the operation of the inoculated small pox (Thelwall, 1804b, p 516-519). He admits that his usual therapies, involving prosody training and articulatory practice would not be useful for this child. He gives the child's history, talks about problems associated with the lack of stimulation, and ends up on this pessimistic note:

Whether from this chaos of original elements, the creations of intelligible speech will ever arise, I own I am exceeding doubtful. (p. 518)

He argues that what the child needs is a therapist-he calls the person a superintendent who

.could descend to all the minituae of ministration and attendance, and who had sufficient authority over the whole household, to preclude all thwartings and interruptions of the necessary plans, either from the prejudices of ignorance, or the impatience of unseasonable doubt. (p. 518):

3. Cleft palate. Case of a cleft palate of a "young gentleman of Birmingham, with "a considerable and serious deficiency in the organization of the mouth; having a fissure of the roof, almost from the very gums, and a consequent defect of the uvula, the imperfect portions of which (separated, also) clung t the back part of the throat" (Thelwall, 1810, p. 45). The boy was fit with apalate and moving uvula of gold" (p. 48) by a dentist. Thelwall worked with the boy for two or three weeks and reports that as a result of his therapy the boy has" no sort of difficulty in rendering himself sufficiently intelligible, even to strangers" (p. 49).

4. Stammering/stuttering. Case of a pupil who stammered. Thelwall describes him as having "a very complicated impediment" (p. 49). This boy frenum had been clipped by Cline. Thelwall recommends such operations only in a few cases and only after the person has been unable to compensate for the problem with the "bridle of the tongue" (p. 49).

Thelwall describes this boy's problem as "falling under the appellations of stammering and stuttering" (p. 55) Specifically, Thelwall describes his difficulties as follows: "suffocation of the struggling breath, in the larynx, the stagnation of all voluntary motion in the lips and jaw, the distortion of the nostrils,--all the revolting phenomena" (p. 53). He argues that this person's difficulties do not have anything to do with the bridle of the tongue directly. But, he admits, "that such original mal-conformation, obstructing the ordinary process of utterance, may have been one, among many remote causes that have superinduced mistaken and ill-directed efforts of the other organs, vocal and enunciative; and may, therefore, have conduced to that embarrassment of mind, that irritability of temper, and tose other mental and moral maladies, with which such impediments are generally more or less intimately connected" (pps. 54-55).

5. Epilepsy and imbecility (retardation) (p. 99)

Cases reported to Thelwall by others (Mr. Gough a philosopher and Dr. James a practicing physician)

Gough-a blind child, whose behavior would now be categorized as autistic (p.86)

Gough-a blind child who communicated through gestures until 5 years, when she went to knitting school. There she learned to "converse".(p. 110)

Gough-a child who ate bees (p. 111)

Gough-a man attached to his mother (p.112-113)

Gough-Man in Kendall-no sensory abilities but useful to society (p. 114).

Gough-Case of moral idiocy (autism?) (p. 116-122) Argues for the importance of social interaction.

James: case of two children whose adopted their grandfather's sign language as the only means for communication and who did not develop speech until they were forbidden to use manual signs (p. 127).


Denyse Rockey, in her history of speech disorders in 19th century Britain, discusses what she sees as the crucial role that John Thelwall played in the development of the profession of elocution, a direct ancestor to the field of speech pathology:

Thelwall was the first to see it [speech correction] as a discipline in its own right, distinct from the management of deafness or mental retardation. Aside from his astute clinical observations, he could claim novelty for defining it as a science as well as an art; for stressing that theory should be founded upon practical experience with patients; and for drawing attention to the relevance of physiology, a subject hitherto neglected by elocutionists (Rockey, 1980, p. 46).