Joan Smith: How funny is a speech defect?

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The Independent Online

When the Labour peer Lord Ashley died last month, warm tributes were paid to his work on behalf of disabled people. Ashley became profoundly deaf in the middle of his career, when he was already an MP, and learned to make speeches in Parliament even though he could no longer hear his own voice. No one would dream of mocking a deaf politician's distinctive delivery, but The Sun thinks it's hilarious that the new England football manager has a speech impediment.

Roy Hodgson has an impediment known as rhotacism, or an inability to pronounce the letter R. This seems to have caused an outburst of uncontrollable mirth at the tabloid, which mocked Hodgson yesterday in childish headlines: "Woy gets England job. Bwing on the Euwos! (We'll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)."

Now, I can well imagine that the paper's staff were in dire need of diversion after this week's damning select committee verdict on their proprietor. But it might just have crossed their minds that the Hodgson front page was in a tradition of offensive Sun headlines leading back to the infamous occasion when it described Frank Bruno as "bonkers". The boxer had just been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and the then editor, Rebekah Brooks, faced a storm of protest.

I don't know whether there's a subliminal suggestion of effeminacy here, but Hodgson wasn't The Sun's choice for the job. That was Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp, who used to write a column for the paper despite a mysterious episode during his recent trial for tax evasion – he was acquitted – when he claimed to write like a two-year-old. Hodgson, by contrast, is a Renaissance man in the world of football, fluent in several languages and an admirer of the novels of Milan Kundera.

Given how poor the English are at foreign languages, it seems all the odder to mock someone who's overcome a speech impediment with such success. Yet it's still acceptable in some quarters to make fun of how someone speaks, as both David Beckham and the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, have found to their cost.

As for the new England manager, he seems decent, well-educated and grown-up. That's more than I can say for yesterday's heartless headlines.

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