So what’s the difference: dis- vs. dys- ?
Dis- is originally a Latin prefix that means “lack of” or “not.” It is used as a fairly simple negation (as in the instances of “dislike” and “disavow”), removal (as in “dismember”), or reversal (as in “disassociate”) (OED).
The term “disfluency” is similarly used to indicate a type of speech that is merely not fluent. It is a sterile and clinical term that turns our wild forms of speech variation into a simple lack or failure judged against the presumed normalcy and desirability of smooth speech. ‘Disfluent’ hides its values behind an apparent objectivity.
Dys- is originally a Greek prefix indicating “bad, difficult” or “destroying the good sense of a word, or increasing its bad sense” (OED). Unlike dis-, dys- is not a simple negation, but marks a transgression: something has gone wrong, particularly in a moral sense.
We accordingly take ‘dysfluency’ to be a far more honest term than ‘disfluency.’ While ‘disfluent’ feigns at being objective and sterile, ‘dysfluent’ recognizes that when we stutter we are not simply performing a lack, but we are transgressing the entire moral code of how society expects us to speak. To stutter is to disobey, to overstep the narrow boundaries of able-bodied speech.
Chris Constantino recently claimed that stuttering is a form of civil disobedience. Using the term ‘dysfluent’ helps us at DIS be aware of the subversive possibilities of our unpredictable and unruly speech. If stuttering is transgressive, let’s own that and make it ours.
Obviously how people use words is far more important than how they are spelled, which puts definite limits on the value of word analysis. People who use ‘disfluent’ aren’t necessarily bound to medicalized notions of speech and can still use it to mean something more transgressive. However, the fact that ‘disfluent’ is the accepted standard within medicalized communities compells me in itself to describe my speech differently. There is nothing clinical about how I talk. Our voices are anything but a lack.