Slips of the tongue are legion
, and can be broken down into more specific categories
. Here are a few:
- Anticipation: The act of using a language element (like a phoneme, or perhaps an entire word) before it is appropriate because it will be appropriate later in the sentence. Example: "a worderful world" instead of "a wonderful world".
- Perseveration: The act of using a language element that was appropriate earlier in a sentence but is no longer appropriate. This one can be inflicted upon unsuspecting friends in the following manner: Ask your target to spell the word "fort" aloud -- "F-O-R-T". Repeat this several times in a row, then quickly ask, "What do you eat soup with?" The victim of your insidious priming will generally blurt out "fork!" without thinking, because the "for-" perseveres. Another trick is to have him spell "tops" or "pots," then ask "what do you do at a green light?" Even flawless drivers will probably say "stop."
- Substitution: The act of substituting one language element for another. This can occur with whole words (a warning to do something "after it's too late" when you meant "before it's too late") or with isolated sounds. For example, during a recent presentation in a cognitive neuroscience class, I made a reference to "morphines," when I meant "morphemes."
- Transposition: Switching the positions of two language elements. A common one turns "butterfly" into "flutterby." This phenomenon is also referred to as Spoonerism, and has resulted in some highly quotable quotes, including "easier for a camel to go through the knee of an idol."
- Malapropism: The act of replacing one word with another, similar-sounding word. Named after the literary Mrs. Malaprop, who was prone to such mistakes as "the very pineapple of politeness" when meaning, of course, "the very pinnacle of politeness."
- Insertion or Deletion: Sounds added to or removed from a word or series of words. An example of insertion would be "mischievious" for "mischievous," while deletion might involve saying "breakfas'es" for "breakfasts."
Another type of commonly-referenced slip of the tongue is the Freudian slip
, in which the mistake
supposedly reveals a subconscious desire
of the person making it. For example, a businessman might say "glad to beat you" instead of "glad to meet you" when introducing himself to a competitor
. Cognitive scientists
generally don't deal with this aspect of slips, viewing them as unintentional and lacking a deeper subconscious meaning. They study slips to understand speech
processes, not unspoken dark secrets.
Particularly interesting to linguists
and cognitive scientists is the fact that slips often preserve proper phonetics
even when the meaning of the phrase uttered is completely nonsensical. In other words, the mind gets some things right while getting other things quite wrong at the same time.
For example, in the famous Spoonerism involving the "knee of an idol", Spooner used the correct article
("an") in front of the wrong word ("idol")! Similarly, a mistake like "breakfas" for "breakfast" is pluralized ("breakfas'es") the way one would pluralize a word that is actually supposed to end in S -- with the "-ez" sound like "glasses" instead of the "-s" sound found in "breakfasts." This suggests the order in which the mind arranges language elements into sentences, with things like articles and suffixes
being computed after the (sometimes erroneous) main words.
Cognitive Psychology (Third Edition) by Robert J. Sternberg
Words and Rules by Steven Pinker