World’s First AAC Device…Pebbles?

The Greek politician and orator, Demosthenes (/dɪ’mɒsθəˌniz/), lived from 384 to 322 BCE, during which time he was feted as one of the Greece’s most noted speakers. Cicero went to far as to proclaim him “the perfect orator” [1], which is high praise indeed from someone who was also recognized as a master presenter.

Demosthenes: Greek orator

Demosthenes 384-355 BCE

But as a child, Demosthenes had a stammer, which was so noticeable that he was given a nickname by his less-than-sympathetic friends: Batalus. The name derives from the Greek βατταρίζω, which means “to stutter.” Tragically for poor Demosthenes, it was also Greek slang at the time for “anus,” and “effeminate,” so his nickname was something of a double whammy.

Batalus was also the name of a popular flute player from Ephesus who, according to Libanius [3] was the first man ever to appear on stage wearing women’s shoes; an event so shocking and scandalous that the writer Antiphanes made him a character of mockery in one of his comedies.

Undaunted by the abuse, Demosthenes took up a therapy regimen that included what might be considered the first augmentative and alternative communication device in the world: the humble pebble. According to Plutarch;

his inarticulate and stammering pronunciation he overcame and rendered more distinct by speaking with pebbles in his mouth. [2]

It’s interesting to speculate on why stuffing your mouth with pebbles might help overcome a dysfluency, and even more interesting to wonder why there is not some enterprising individual out there selling “Stutter Pebbles” via the Internet, in a variety of colors and sizes to accommodate the different lifestyles and aspirations of potential customers!

Colored pebbles

TheraPebbles™ - not!

How true the story of Demosthenes’ pebbles is depends on how accurate Plutarch was in his investigations, and unless someone out there can channel the spirit of a dead Greek, there’s no way of testing the accuracy of the story. What is of interest is simply the fact that the idea of using some sort of physical technology to assist speech has been around for a long time.

If you know of anyone who has tried – or even better succeeded with – using Pebble Therapy, let us know by commenting below or dropping us an e-mail. And if you know of even older AAC devices, we’d love to hear from you!

[1] Cicero, M.T. (1951) Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 60,137-146.
[2] Margaret E. Molloy, M.E. (1996)  Libanius and the Dancers, Olms-Weidmann, Hildesheim.
[3] Plutarch (1919). The Parallel Lives: The Life of Demosthenes. Vol VII, Loeb Classic Library Edition.


5 responses to “World’s First AAC Device…Pebbles?

  1. John Birtwhistle


    John Ferrar, in the seventeenth-century MS 251 in Lambeth Palace Library, London, records an occasion on which the linguist Nicholas Ferrar was presented to King Charles I. An attendant suggested that the young man might overcome his impediment of speech by speaking with a pebble in his mouth; but the King [who had presumably read his Plutarch] declared that he had tried this method himself with no good result, and advised Ferrar rather to deliberate carefully beforehand what he wished to say, and to practise singing.

    Reference: C. Leslie Craig, “Nicholas Ferrar Junior. A Linguist of Little Gidding” (London: The Epworth Press, 1950), 37n.

  2. John Birtwhistle

    Dear Moderator,

    A fuller reference to the Manuscript I mentioned would be:

    MS 251 ff. 31r-51v.

    Also, the title and subtitle of the book should be in italics, not inverted commas: I couldn’t get your box to accept italics.


    • What an excellent snippet of information – exactly the sort of trivia that the Dudes love 😉 Thanks for the addition to this post and the reference. Although in general I am not a great believer in the “wisdom of crowds,” this is a great example of where someone, somewhere, can know something that most people wouldn’t know, and can then share it! As to the italics, alas we are merely freeloaders on the WordPress software so if WordPress don’t have it, neither do we. Having said that, I’ll try using the “” and “ HTML code to see if I can write in italics manually (so to speak). Cheers.

  3. John Birtwhistle

    Hello again. The underlying point is not trivial: as we know from the tradition of oratory from Cicero through Castiglione, elegant and cogent speech is a function of power. Demosthenes had to master his speech impediment in order to ‘have a say’ in the state (sufficient to challenge Alexander). For a monarch, whether Charles I or George VI, not even to speak with average efficiency was a symbolic flaw in their power and an embarrassment that had to be overcome. To listen to what may be articulated through hesitation, stammering, silence or broken speech is to question whether power is the only eloquence.
    John Birtwhistle

  4. Why don’t you find someone with a stutter, and try before you throw these guys under the bus.

    Instead, you’ve thrown them under the bus…and asked for someone who has tried.

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