Google’s first result for “stutter synonyms” is “stammer” but I prefer the former. It always feels like a letdown when synonyms don’t ring true. Stammerers approximate. Stutterers struggle.

“Stammer” comes from a Proto-Germanic variant of the verb “stumm,” meaning “to mute.” “Stutter” also comes from a Proto-Germanic verb, but this one, “staut,” means to push, thrust, hit, or knock against. My speech has never been mute. It’s been violent, syllabic, percussive, uncomfortable. It’s been morphemes squeezing out from between my teeth and bringing color to my cheeks, racing ideas to the roof of my mouth before I can breathe air into the sounds they need to exist in the world. It’s the table-shaking knee jiggles during dreaded name games, while I wrestle through the prolongations in my hometown, N-nnn-new York, the repetitions in my major, Ling-ling-liiinguistics, the abnormal stoppages in my name. Mmm. MMm. Maya

My stutter sorts the world into safe and unsafe. One of my most vivid childhood memories is writing out the alphabet in two different colored crayons—red for hard sounds, blue for easy. Consistently fluent words were a light green, and impossible ones black. The letters floated in a cool haze behind my eyes while I spoke, creeping crimson into my peripheral vision when I felt the resistance start to wrap itself around my tongue. Darcy Steinke said wrote it best: “It was around [elementary school] that I started separating the alphabet into good letters […] and bad letters.” These red and blue groups have remained in my mind and mouth as I’ve grown up, but now I’m more aware of their combinations. Steinke continues that “the central irony of [her] life remains that [her] stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for [her] obsession with language.” I wish I’d written this sentence. My infatuation with language began with my inability to produce it, and I declared a major in Linguistics early in my college career, when merely introducing myself was excruciating. In sophomore year phonology, the blue and red letters fell into patterns with more scientific names. My back-open vowels after palatal stops are briny waves against gravel in flat-soled shoes, my bilabial and alveolar nasals are a stalling engine, and velar plosives hang on my hard palate and push their pointy fingertips into bottom of my tongue.

I’ve become proficient in the lexicon of approximation. I’ve reached fluency in talking-around; synonyms have become my second language, thinking and dreaming in them when I feel a bodily resistance to my words of choice. But sometimes redefinition falls short as well, and I’m forced to struggle through a word glowing red. The breaths I take mid-word are my stammering moments, fermatas on tacet measures of a percussive moment of speech. I hate giving up on the intentional chain of sounds that God or a linguist or centuries of speakers of Indo-European languages put on this earth for us to say, but when I do, my speech is mute. Reading out loud is agonizing, probably more so than extemporaneous speech, because the slivers of page between words and lines magnify and swell and shatter the continuity of a phrase on its way out of my mouth. I begin, but my tongue and throat freeze. I pause. This white space is vulnerability, and my command of a room hangs there for a moment, until the silence has gone on a beat too long. The response to this is unfortunately unchanging: stifled laughter, quips that I’ve forgotten my own name, and English teachers guessing the end of a word that’s put up a hard, transparent wall just one or two letters away from completion. These beats of muteness are an inhale and a reset, but they are also a surrender to the violence of a stutter. It’s not a push back or a push through or a push out of the way. I do these things too. But a stammer is a seat taken, a palm extended and retracted, a white flag raised.

I have no desire to be rid of my stutter. Moments of fluency are a relief, of course, a welcome break from the exhaustion of empty space, redundant redefinitions, and taxing fragmentations. But without my stutter I don’t feel like myself—my struggling staccato is my authentic voice, and my awkward cadence is the way I speak. The hard stops and prolongations and repetitions are my own. So are the silences in between. My hope is that I’m heard in both.

Maya Osman-Krinsky (they/them/theirs) is a native New Yorker pursuing their B.A. in Linguistics and Global Studies at the University of Chicago. Currently writing for Food Tank, Maya is interested in the relationship between food systems, language, and public health. Maya was recently named runner-up in the Kurt Brown Prize for Creative Nonfiction and has attended the young writers’ workshops at Writopia Lab, the University of Iowa, and Kenyon College. Reach Maya at [email protected] or follow them on Twitter @mokwrites.