Moses’ Tongue


As a child I had a habit, frequently ineradicable among young stutterers, of preferring the weak vowel. Instead of saying “da-da-daddy,” for example, I would say “duh-duh-daddy.” The English-language term schwa—sometimes called the “murmur vowel”—names this uh sound.[1] My teachers in Hebrew school taught me that schwa was related to sheva, which is the sign in written Hebrew “placed under a consonant letter to express [what Jewish grammarians regard as] the absence of a following vowel sound,” and, they always emphasized, it was “an arbitrary alteration of shãw', emptiness, vanity.”[2] As such, the schwa recalled for me the Mosaic commandment that we should never speak lashav (vainly) about adonai (God):

Lo tisa etshem-adonai eloheycha lashav ki lo yenakeh adonai et asher-yisa etshmo lashav. [Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.][3]

Does this commandment mean that one should not use the name of God for any frivolous or malicious purpose or in magic? Or does it outlaw using God’s name in guaranteeing commercial contracts? Or does it only prohibit “swear words”? In Hebrew school, my friends and I compared this Mosaic commandment with the prophet Ezekiel’s complaint about the vanity of false prophets (Ezek. 13:6–9). But, as a young stutterer, I took Moses to mean something like, “Don’t use the schwa vowel.” And for me, that meaning amounted to “Don’t stutter.” This was a regulation that, once internalized, all but assured that I would stutter.

My most unbearable stuttering experience in Hebrew school was the unavoidable one at the beginning of every class. I would be called upon to announce my presence during the alphabetical roll call. Mr. Teicher—a stern and always disapproving teacher—would begin to read out the roll in predictable, inexorable sequence. There was plenty of time for me to anticipate my failure. I trembled fearfully, more and more, until my name, me-ir, came up. “Me-ir, are you present?”

Every stammering schoolchild rehearses the phrase, “I am present,” in his head—over and over and over again—during the hours-long minutes before his turn comes up. (Stutterers who have difficulty saying their own names sometimes resort to changing their names to easily pronounceable ones. Soon afterward, however, they discover that their new, once easily pronounceable names, have now become difficult to pronounce.) Not a few stutterers—including many who have gone on to prominence in the field of stuttering therapy—dropped out of school on account of their stuttering.[4] And many young scholars who stutter do not go on to do graduate work because they fear that they will fail oral examinations—even as I failed fourth grade in elementary school.[5]

In Hebrew school, I would try, always unsuccessfully, to answer, in Hebrew, ani poh (“I [am] present”). But the schwa—a-a-a-a-ani—was too much for me; and my fear of stuttering helped precipitate the failure I feared. Stuttering at Hebrew school was so difficult an experience for me that I often played hooky all day in order to avoid being there at all. (Many stutterers play hooky.)[6] On such days, I would hide out from Mr. Teicher at the local French-language library. I would read the Five Books of Moses and identify with Adam, who hid among the trees when God called to him: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8). And I would especially read over the passage in Exodus where God calls out “Moses, Moses” from the burning bush in Midian (Ex. 3:4).

Moses had a severe speech impediment of his own. Yet somehow Moses managed to get out a magnificent answer, hineni (“I am here”), when called. I knew that it was more difficult for Moses, as a stutterer, to answer hineni even than it was for Abraham to say hineni when God sought him out to ask for the sacrifice of Isaac his son.[7] Hineni eventually became a great prayer of mediation between the congregation’s emissary and God: the cantor, both dummy- and ventriloquist-like, recites a private prayer that begins hineni as he takes over the crucial synagogue service on the morning of Rosh Hashanah.

My colleague and former officemate Neil Schmitz, at SUNY Buffalo, is right to insist, in his first person account “To the Speech Clinic,” that “at some point in the stutterer’s early life there must be a question—a question so powerful that it is forgotten, because all that is remembered is the circumstance. I am obliged to speak.” “It is not what is to be said that makes the stutterer hesitate,” Schmitz claims, “but that it must be said.”[8]


At the Burning Bush
At the burning bush, God tells Moses to speak for him. Why Moses?

On the face of it, God’s choice of Moses to be his dummy spokesperson is odd. Moses is not a person who speaks well. Presumably, an omnipotent God could cure Moses of his speech impediment. (God says so himself, though in the form of three questions: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”)[9] Isaiah reminds us that “the tongue of the stutters shall be ready to speak distinctly.”[10] God’s capacity to cure “tonguelessness” is a principal aspect of the miracle of Pope Leo III’s tongue-restoration.[11] There is also the story reported in the Gospel According to Saint Mark: “And they [the disciples] brought to him [Jesus] a man who . . . had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. And taking him aside from the multitude privately . . . he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, Eph'phatha, that is, Be opened. And his . . . tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (7:32–35).[12] Most relevantly for our present purpose, there is Moses’ own report about Balaam’s talking ass: “And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass” (Num. 22:28).[13] An ass is a creature that has no faculty for speech, but in Numbers an ass speaks eloquently to the pagan prophet Balaam. God also made Balaam’s mouth utter blessings rather than curses—they are Balaam’s words that Jews recite every time they enter a synagogue: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).[14] If God could make an ass speak, and could make an enemy speak well of Israel, surely God could heal Moses’ tongue.

In some religious traditions Moses actually asks to be cured of his stuttering. So in the Qur'an Moses says, “O my Lord! Expand my breast for me,/And make my affair easy to me,/And loose the knot from my tongue,/(That) they may understand my word.”[15] And Allah cures him. Some Christian interpreters likewise expect that God’s presence ought to cure Moses of his speech defect. (The Easy-To-Read Translation thus has Moses say, “And now, even after talking to you, I am still not a good speaker” [Ex. 4:10]). But Moses makes no explicit request in Exodus to be cured, and he is not cured. (The Knox Translation of 1955 even emphasizes that the appearance of God, while not the cause of the stutter that Moses has already apparently had for years, is a factor that “exacerbates” it. Says Knox’s Moses at Exodus 4:10, “I am more faltering, more tongue-tied, than ever.”)


The Stuttering God
Moses is not the only being to hesitate at the burning bush. God does too. Is that why he seeks out a stutterer? Like a teacher reading out the roll, Moses demands that God speak out the ineffable name: “What [is] his name?” (Ex. 3:13).[16] The stutterer James Malcolm Rymer was right to stress, in his first person account, The Unspeakable; or, The Life and Adventures of a Stammerer (1855), God’s relevant status as “unspeakable.”[17] But God says in the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14, eheyeh asher eheyeh (“I am that I am” in the King James Version). The prophet Isaiah recalls this passage in his reduplicative paraphrase at 51:12, anokhi anokhi hu (“I, even I, am He” [King James Version]).[18] The Septuagint’s Greek rendering of Isaiah’s paraphrase—ego eimi ego eimi (“I am I am”)—likewise brings out the repetition or existential doubling in the Hebrew. The Latin of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate—ego ego (“I, I”) —suggests indeed a divine stutter.

When I was coming up the speech ladder in the 1950s, my francophone Jesuit teachers interpreted Jerome’s “ego ego” mainly in terms of Jesus’ self-presentation in the Gospel According to Saint John (“Before Abraham was, I am”).[19] But I had my doubts, since we all knew well the anglophone Protestant doggerel that mocked the divine antiname: “I Am I Am, I Am I Am,/What kind of name is I Am I Am?” This version of the doggerel is quoted from “I Am I Am According to Dr. Seuss,” a poem published in the journal Theology Today.[20] At the time, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had already authored books and animated movies featuring Gerald McBoing Boing—the little boy who spoke only in nonanimate sound effects. Celebrated as a talking-animal poet, Dr. Seuss made hay from making puns and fun of “childish” speech defects like mine. (Dr. Seuss went on to write about “Sam-I-Am” in Green Eggs and Ham [1960].)[21]

God as ventriloquist needed a spokesman because he was unable to speak directly to the people. We will see that the dummy Moses, whom he required to speak for him, was both too much and too little like God to do the job. We will also see, though, that the most important aspect of the job would seem to require that the Hebrews’ monotheistic legislator and alphabetical scribe be a stutterer.


Heavy and Uncircumcised
But my tongue is not flexible. Thought is easy; speech is laborious.
—Arnold Schoenberg, Moses and Aron

The tongue is not an efficient servant of the intelligence.
—Pseudo-Aristotle, Problems 11.1902b

Moses frames his reluctance to call on Pharaoh in terms of two kinds of speech impediment. The first is that he is “heavy of speech”; the second, that he has “uncircumcised lips.”

The passage relevant to the first (Ex. 4:11) is translated thus by George M. Lamsa, an Assyrian from “Kurdistan”: “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore nor since thou hast spoken to thy servant; for I am a stutterer and slow [kaved] of speech.” Lamsa was an expert translator from his native Aramaic (Syriac), often said by scholars to be much like ancient Hebrew. However, the Hebrew term kaved would seem to mean, “literally,” something like the English heavy, which is how a few translations deal with the term.[22] The second time that Moses brings up his impediment, the dialogue goes:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me—a man of impeded speech!” (Ex. 6:10–13)[23]

There are various alternates for the translation of impeded speech.[24] The more literal translators have it that Moses claims to be “of uncircumcised lips.”[25] The German Elberfelder has the relevant passage as “ich unbeschnittene Lippen habe”—slightly varying the terminology from the great Bibel (1545) of Martin Luther. (Luther’s momentous “conversion” of July 2, 1505—the day he decided to become an Augustinian monk—took place near the felicitously named town of Stotternheim, sometimes glossed as “Home of Stuttering.”) Rashi said in the eleventh century that “uncircumcised” means “closed” or “stopped up,” and he gives several examples from other biblical verses to corroborate his view.[26] Some of these verses relate to circumcision events.[27] A few involve physical “deformity” linked with language disability. But none tell us what it really means to have “closed” lips.


Adapated and reprinted electronically by permission of the publisher from “Moses’ Tongue” in STUTTER by Marc Shell, pp. 102-109, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright (c) 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “murmur,” n. II6.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “sheva.” See also “schwa.”

[3] King James Version. The “Ten Commandments” are listed, with one slight variation, at Exodus 20:2–14 and Deuteronomy 5:6–18.

[4] For example, Einer Boberg was a severe stutterer, so afraid of teasing that he quit school at age fifteen. He eventually managed to conquer his fears and continue his education.

[5] See the case of “Bill,” who does not go on to do a year of work at Oxford: “The oral dissertation required of him he could not fulfill. He was too broken to make the attempt.” See Abraham Kanter and A. S. Kohn,—And the Stutterer Talked (Boston, MA: Humphries, 1938), 157.

[6] For an example, see Marty Jezer’s memoir, Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 91.

[7] Abraham’s response (to God, to Isaac, and to the angel who halted the sacrifice of Isaac) was likewise hineni (Gen. 22:1, 22:7, 22:11). So also Isaiah, when God asks “Whom shall I send,/And who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8).

[8] Neil Schmitz, “To the Speech Clinic,” International Quarterly 3.2 (1998): 36–39.

[9] Ex. 4:11 (English Standard Version).

[10] Isa. 32:4 (Geneva Bible translation [1560]), spelling updated. In the King James Bible (1611), the word used is “stammerers.” Cf. Richard Whitlock, Zootomia (1654), 150: “What mighty lines hath Isaiah? read, and confesse Demosthenes and Cicero, but Stammerers at Eloquence.”

[11] For a nonhagiographical account of Pope Leo's tongue, see Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 94.

[12] Revised Standard Version.

[13] King James Version.

[14] King James Version.

[15] Sura 20:26–29 (The Holy Qur'an, trans. M. H. Shakir [Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, 1983]).

[16] Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (1898; Grand Rapids, MI: Barker, 1953); square brackets inserted by Young.

[17] See James Malcolm Rymer, preface to The Unspeakable; or, The Life and Adventures of a Stammerer (London: Clarke and Beeton, 1855).

[18] Cf. Isa. 43:25.

[19] John 8:58 (King James Version).

[20] W. Alan Froggatt, “I Am I Am: According to Dr. Seuss” (poem), Theology Today 48.4 (January 1992): 465. Froggatt was a minister of the Bridgewater Congregational Church in Connecticut.

[21] Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (New York: Beginner Books, 1960).

[22] “You know that I talk slowly and don’t use the best words” (English Version for the Deaf). “I speak slowly, and I become tongue-tied easily” (God’s Word). “I am weak in speech, and slow-tongued” (The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, with Apocrypha: Greek and English [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970]). “I have no command of words” (Moffatt New Translation). “I am slow of speech and of an awkward tongue” (New Berkeley Version). “I speak slowly and can’t find the best words” (New Century Version). “I’m clumsy with words” (New Living Translation). “I am slow in talking and it is difficult for me to speak” (New Life Version). “I am slow and hesitant” (Revised English Bible). “I am slow of speech and slow in expressing my ideas” (The Shorter Bible). “For heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue I am” (Restoration of the Original Sacred Name Bible). “I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant” (Today’s English Version). “I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well” (Jerusalem Bible [Catholic]). “When I get up before a crowd my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth” (The Word Made Fresh).

[23] Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society), italics mine.

[24] These variants include “unskilled in speech” (New American Standard Bible), “of deficient and impeded speech” (Amplified Bible), and “no orator” (New Living Translation). French translators offer up moi qui n'ai pas la parole facile (Louis Segond) and je n'ai pas la parole facile (Bible de Semeur). German translations include Ich bin einfach ein zu schlechter Redner (Hoffnung für Alle).

[25] See the English Standard Version, New International Version, King James Version, 21st-Century King James Version, American Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, and Darby Translation.

[26] Rashi is Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, who lived in what is now France. “Uncircumcised lips” (aral sefatayim) occurs at Ex. 6:12 and 6:30. Rashi commenting on 6:12 says: “aral sefatayim: atum sefatayim (one whose lips are blocked). Likewise, I [Rashi] say that all instances of the term orla mean blocked.” Rashi gives six examples from Jeremiah and Habakkuk. Rambam uses aral sefatayim as opposed to ragil. An aral sefatayim is not learned and is unable to recite statutory prayer (la'arokh tefilla) and praises. In some way his lips are “blocked” (uncircumcised). Isaiah (at 52:1) takes circumcision as a symbol of purity, and we read of uncircumcised ears (Jer. 6:10), lips (Ex. 6:12, 30), and hearts (Lev. 26:41). The fruit of a tree that is unclean is spoken of as uncircumcised (Lev. 19:23). Various texts of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament refer to circumcision as spiritual, inward, a purification of the heart (see Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Ezek. 44:7; Acts 7:51; Rom. 2:28; Col. 2:11).

[27] On Moses’ way to Egypt, there occurs one of the most mysterious episodes in the Bible (Ex. 4:24–26). God, for reasons unexplained, seeks to kill Moses, and Zipporah comes to the rescue: with a sharp stone she circumcises “her son”—which one is not specified—and holds the severed foreskin to Moses’ “feet” (a euphemism, perhaps, for genitals), saying: “Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.” As a result, God spares Moses, with Zipporah reiterating, “A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” Modern readers guess at the possible meanings but see also such older essays as Johannes Milenius, Tsiporah koretet 'orlat benah, seu Dissertatio philologica de Zippora praeputium filii sui abscindente: Exod. IV, 24, 25, 26 (Stockholm: Laurentii Salvii, 1758); and Andreas Stein, Tsiporah kortah, sive De circumcisione Zipporae: Exercitium academicum, quod ex Cap. IV. v. 24, 25, & 26 Exod. (Jena, Germany: Literis Samuelis Krebsi, 1663).