In the beginning was the Word. However, soon after came the stutter. Since the advent of language, that most persistent and humiliating of speech impediments - stuttering - has been causing misery in every human culture on earth.

Now, this misunderstood condition is the subject of an acclaimed new film, The King's Speech. Starring Colin Firth as King George VI in the true story of the king and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, (played by Geoffrey Rush) who rescued the monarch from ridicule, the movie's New Zealand premiere next week is a fundraiser for Start, a stuttering research and treatment group.

It coincides with Start's campaign - with the help of some high-profile poster boys - to raise awareness about stuttering. Celebrity stutterers such as union firebrand Matt McCarten, former All Black Royce Willis, parenting expert Ian Grant and principal youth court judge Andrew Becroft are standing up for stuttering and advocating early intervention.

Stuttering can sound a lot like the word that describes it and, ironically, it's one of the hardest words for stutterers to utter. A speech disorder where the sufferer typically finds that he is "blocked" by certain words, stuttering typically causes a repetition of the first syllable of certain words, although it can also sound like a verbal tic, or be prolonged and drawn out.

Affecting one per cent of the population, stuttering (or stammering, as it is known in England) has been recorded throughout human history. Moses was reputedly a stutterer, as was Aristotle, Sir Isaac Newton, Lewis Carroll and Charles Darwin.

Legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker had a song about the condition that plagued him, Stuttering Blues: "Yes I'm a stut-stut-stutterin' man/And I can't ta-ta-ta-talk worth a damn/Sometimes I wanta cry/Sometimes I wanta die."

Other famous stutterers include Rowan Atkinson, Sam Neill, Bruce Willis (whose nickname at school was "Buck-Buck"), Tiger Woods and Anthony Hopkins, a dyslexic who said, possibly for dramatic effect: "I used to stammer and lisp and dribble at the mouth."

Often erroneously blamed on anything from bad parenting to low IQ to the consequence of tickling a baby's feet, the latest research indicates that stuttering is a hiccup caused by a problem with neural processing.

Almost always a boy problem, it runs in families and is typically triggered into action between the ages of two and four, often by a stressful event.

While stuttering can be traumatic, it can't kill you and that's one advantage for which Andrew Becroft is grateful.

"I went to an all-boys school and there was a camaraderie based on mutual abuse," says Becroft. "My nickname was 'Stutter', but someone else was 'Redhead' and others were called 'Fatso' and 'Dogbreath'. In a way, boys understand each other and it was never harmful."

It was when Becroft entered the world of law that he struck a certain amount of incredulity. "I remember someone who couldn't believe I was a lawyer. We'd been talking for awhile and, when I said I was a lawyer, I could hear them under their breath saying, 'you're joking'."

While the emphasis now is on early detection and treatment, Becroft had to wait until he was 24 for a three-week residential speech-therapy course that transformed his life and career.

"The advice my parents got was that I would grow out of it, that it was just an issue that would disappear, but it got worse and worse. It started within a few hours of my baby brother being brought home from hospital. I ended up having notes for the bus driver, notes for the fish 'n' chip man, notes for the newsagent. It had a huge effect, and was particularly bad at school.

"Teachers would never ask me the questions, even if I put my hand up, and I was the only prefect at school never to read the notices for the school assembly.

"My stutter was just a block, where the word would not come out. At the course, it was about finding a rhythm and control - learning about control techniques and continuous airflow. We used to practise in pairs, go out on Grafton Rd, walk up to perfect strangers and be talking to them just to see how it would go."

These days, Becroft is confident enough to head the youth court and credits his parents for encouraging him to aim high. "I was lucky that mum and dad always believed in me, and gave me the message that there was nothing I couldn't achieve ... although mum did once say, 'You'd be no good on Sale of the Century."'

Children's speech therapist, Janelle Forman, worries that so many GPs and Plunket nurses still advise parents that stuttering is something you 'grow out of'.

"Between five and 10 per cent of children will go through a period of stuttering between the ages of two and five, and about 75 per cent of those kids will recover without intervention.

"That's why lots of people, even GPs and Plunket nurses, say, 'Don't worry about it, they'll grow out of it', because lots of people do. But it's the percentage of kids who aren't going to grow out of it that we want to get on to, because if we can treat those children as preschoolers or early school-age kids, we can confidently say that we're going to be able to get rid of the stutter in the majority of cases."

Forman says the onset of stuttering seems to occur in a stage of the child's language development where they're putting more words together in sentences.

The treatment programme taught in Australia and New Zealand is "a behavioural approach, where the children get acknowledged and praised for smooth talking. We talk about smooth talking versus bumpy talking," says Forman.

Miraculously, even bad stutterers come right when they sing.

Singers Ljinon Manson and Conrad Standish, neither of whom have taken speech therapy and who struggle with their condition in day-to-day life, find that it all comes right as rain when they open their golden gobs to entertain the public.

Manson, a Wairarapa-based band leader who has performed with the Exponents and many other ensembles (his current group is called 3Guesses) says he has never stuttered on stage, either singing or talking to a crowd, because during live performances he is forced to control his breathing.

United Kingdom-based bassist and singer Conrad Standish (who has backed Bic Runga and fronts his own hot band, the Devastations) concurs: "Mercifully, when I sing I have no such problems. I don't know why this is. Maybe stutterers use a different part of their brains with every day speech, while singing involves another.

"When putting on an accent or mimicking someone, I am generally fluent. Singing and accents are no problem but this is, unfortunately, not so practical for everyday life."

Standish still struggles with stuttering day-to-day and one offshoot is a phobia about talking on the phone. Hence, the only option is to conduct our interview via email: "Doing interviews, ordering cabs or paying bills over the phone sends me into fits of nerves," he writes. "This will generally make the stutter worse - the anticipation, the dread of it."

He has stuttered since the age of three. "I don't remember not having one. My father developed a stutter at seven after being caught in an air raid in London during World War II coincidentally where and when The King's Speech is set. I was taken to a couple of speech therapists when I was four, who were of the opinion I would grow out of it. Thirty odd years later, I'm not so sure.

"My methods for controlling it are pretty basic: if I know that I'm going to have trouble on a certain word (usually hard consonants like 'Conrad') I'll try to find another word with the same, or similar meaning to use in place of the troublesome one. This has probably done wonders for my vocabulary, but obviously hasn't really done anything about the issue at hand. I believe in speech therapy terms it's called 'word avoidance' or 'word substitution'."

Like most stutterers, Standish developed a thick skin and a resilient sense of humour, to mask the humiliation and stand up to the inevitable childhood bullying and teasing.

"When I was at school, I was bullied pretty heavily about it and, as a defence mechanism, I became the class clown, as my father had also done. It's something that I have to deal with on a daily basis, whether I'm getting a pack of cigarettes or ordering dinner in a restaurant.

"Occasionally, people will think that it's some kind of joke and will laugh at my 'excellent jape', or they will answer me in mock-stutter. This happens more often than you'd think. Other times, people will finish my sentences for me. Often this is due to misguided compassion."

But despite his struggle, Standish is a high achiever in a public role, as is so often the case with those afflicted with stuttering.

Forman says that stutterers tend to push themselves to achieve despite the condition or become total wallflowers.

"I remember meeting a guy who was training as a librarian. He had really wanted to do some other job that was much more social but just felt he couldn't.

"Some adults just get on with their lives and it doesn't seem to affect them ... but there are others for whom stuttering hugely affects them, and they end up choosing careers where they don't have to speak in public."

Becroft, despite ultimately conquering his stuttering demon, wishes he had had the advantage of childhood intervention and reinforces its importance. "It's been a life-long issue for me," says the 52-year-old judge.

"Obviously, it's shaped my life profoundly. I'm keen that it doesn't affect others in the same way."

The King's Speech opens on January 20.

Stutterers can seek help at stuttering.co.nz.