Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/February 1906/The Lapses of Speech




A SPECIAL interest attaches to the psychological relations of speech—an interest shared by the philologist, by reason of his recognition that the mode of use and growth of language, in spite of its arbitrary accretions, reflects the native traits of the impulses that gave it being; by the psychiatrist, for whom the observable disturbances of speech offer the most delicate and distinctive criteria of the nature and extent of inner defect; and by the psychologist, for its unique status as the embodiment and recapitulation, racial and individual, the record as well as the means of advance of the psychic endowment in efficiency, in scope and, above all, in analytic insight. Indeed there is hardly an aspect of the psychologist's pursuit that does not find pointed illustration among the extensively variable phenomena of language. I propose to indicate such of the habits, and particularly of the lapses of speech, as reflect the subconscious processes that participate in its normal functioning.

Psychologically, speech is but one of several modes of indicating that we appreciate the situations that confront us, that we judge and assimilate and combine these in rational fashion, and that we shape our conduct accordingly. A chess-player exhibits all this as distinctively as a debater; and the moves of the one, though quite remote from any verbal expression, are closely parallel to the arguments of the other. The analogies of speech with other forms of intelligent expression favor the expectation that the lapses of the two will exhibit a considerable range of resemblance; for both will be expressive of the common habit of the mind to step and trip in set measure. The reduction of ideas to words and the marshaling of words in expressive and conventionally regulated sentences is an intricate accomplishment, even to the expert; like all such, it requires that the technique thereof, the ability to register and manipulate the common factors that enter in kaleidoscopic shifting of position into the pattern of the fashioned product, shall have become a well-drilled habit. If we could look upon an exhibition of the art of constructing sentences with something of the objective, uninitiated attitude with which we observe the bewildering flight of the scores of bobbins and the shifting of the pins of the lace-maker, we should marvel equally at the skill of the verbal craftsman, who, like the other, must take up each thread in just the right order, give it just the right twist, and make of the whole amazingly intricate business not the seemingly inevitable tangle, but a beautiful, orderly design. It is, indeed, easily intelligible that, in moments of wavering oversight, slight snarls and slips should occur. An intimate analysis of these lapses of speech may reveal details, by no other evidence so clearly exhibited, in regard to the subconscious operations that are normally required to shape sense and utterance to a successful issue.

The central relation seems to be this: the complexity of speech requires the occupation with many processes at once, and some of these—the nicer, more delicate, less familiar ones—will receive the major attention, while the routine factors engage but a minor degree of concern. Slight fluctuations in the condition of the speaker—physiological ones, such as fatigue, and, for the most part, psychological ones, such as excitement, apprehension, embarrassment—will induce variations in the nicety of adjustment that are recognizable as typical slips of tongue or pen, and, still more significantly, of the tongue-and-pen-guiding mechanism. Conformably to what is true of lapses of behavior in general, such slips will be predominantly expressive in type. We know what we wish to say; we give over the saying of it to the usual faithful mechanism, which on this occasion drops a stitch, or takes up the bobbins in wrong order, or plainly tangles the threads. With but one right way and so many wrong ones, it is significant that our departures from the intended design are so predominantly of a few types. There are the anticipations, the persistences, the interchanges, the substitutions[2] and the entanglements of letters, and of words and parts of words, and of phrases—all of them indicative of shortcomings in the minute distribution of attention and coordination. That which is now subconsciously in the margin and is being prepared for utterance, emerges ahead of its time; that which is waning after utterance persists too long and reenters the articulatory field; or both processes occur, the second, having usurped the place of the first, tumbles the legitimate predecessor into its own vacancy, while the more variable slips require, as do the more pronounced lapses of conduct, some illumination from the introspective side.

Whether we are speaking, or are reading aloud from the printed page, or are copying, or are engaged in original writing, we are likely to find that which is about to enter the motor field anticipating its utterance: for between feeling and willing, there emerges between filling; expert persons becomes expersons; a lecturer alludes to the tropic of Cancercorn; in public reading, the beautiful is as useful is rendered the buseful; in writing pieces of machinery, the pen writes pieches. So also in German: Sturm und Drang becomes Strang; one intending to say Nach Innsbruck aus München says Nach Minnsbruck; so also Minuster für Kultur und Unterricht; Es war mir auf der Brust so schwer emerges as Es war mir auf der Schwert; and (with the slip immediately noticed and corrected), Die Sympather . . . die Japaner sind mir viel sympathischer. So with persistence of words or fragments thereof: With revelation in mind, the speaker actually said, Those who believe in evolution think that revolution; and we meet with refinement and gentlement gentleness); secluded retruts (retreats); Die Psalmen sind Producte der jüdischen Müse (Muse). Slips of anticipation are naturally more frequent than those of persistence, for the reason that the margin that is qualifying for consciousness is naturally closer to our concern than that which is dismissed or dismissible; and, perhaps still more naturally do both appear at once, thus producing interchanges of the threads of utterance. Portar and mestle; in one swell foop; dame, leaf and blind; sody and boul; Phosford's acid Horsephate; go out on the corch to pool; make a noyful joise—these hardly need interpretation, as execution reveals intent. Somewhat more divorced from meaning, yet intelligible, are, Are you strailing out for your mole? (strolling out for your mail); which he whiches (wishes); the water the wetter (the wetter the water); flutter by (butterfly). Put the tray on the weights; going to the coal to buy the wharf; set your leg on four chairs, are simple in formula; but I bought three dollars for I bought my dress for three dollars; collooding for colliding in the loop; put plustard for put mustard and flour in the plaster, are clear only after the intention is revealed. The German offers parallel models: Die Milo von Venus; Wertlaut (Lautwert); Einen Zuck Huter (Einen Hut Zucker); Ich verganz gass (Ich vergass ganz); Zwecktischer Prak (praktischer Zweck); Tapps und Schnabak (Schnapps und Tabak).

There are still more complex cases in which various of these factors and others combine to give the substituted expression more misleading similarity to the proper one. When the perverted phrase is meaningless and sounds strange to the ear, we are quite likely, though by no means certain, to become aware of the lapse;[3] but when it has the glib sound or semblance of sense, it passes unnoticed before the sensory sentinel. The much-cited scholar who spoke of the half-warmed fish that one feels in one's breast (half-formed wish) perhaps reached the acme of sensible sounding absurdity. On the same plane is the statement that We have a very queer dean (a very dear Queen); while the speaker who converted little ditches branching off into little britches dancing off, departed from strict linguistic interchange by the logical attractions of dancing (it should have been danching).

It is to be noted that most of these lapses are peculiar to speech (vocal utterance), because this is the more fluent, more automatic expression; and further that these speech-lapses are apt to be favored by any slight indisposition or fatigue or excitement. One collector of such linguistic frailties notes that they occur more frequently at the end of an evening's conversation than at the beginning. Certain of the lapses are characteristically oral; a smaller class graphic; still others common to both forms of expression; while even in that half-innervated process of reading to one's self, or formulating one's thought in words (as in preparing for an address) do these lapses become cognizable to the semi-articulate consciousness. The lapses of writing are both less frequent and simpler than those of speech, because in writing we proceed by smaller units, and write as a rule with more alert attention than we give to casual talk or even to careful utterance. Graphic lapses will accordingly be apt to occur in rapid and absorbed composition in which thought runs well ahead of execution, or will occur in ordinary writing and be slight in character.[4] By virtue of the same relations, the more poised temperaments and deliberate speakers on the one hand, and those whose expertness in speech does not permit them so readily to commit execution to subconscious guidance (children and the uncultivated) on the other, will not be as subject to speech-lapses as the more fluent and venturesome speakers. Lapses of speech, like lapses of conduct, are favored by that inattention which we are disposed to give to ingrained and well-habituated activities.

Interrupting the taking of testimony at this point to interpret the evidence, it is obvious that these lapses follow definite trends, illustrative of our psycho-linguistic mechanism. Both anticipated and persistent and interchanging parts of words, and parts of phrases, yield to confusion because of the psychological equivalence of the confused portions. Such equivalence of value or function in the attentive consciousness of the sentence-builder is determined by many considerations. Similarity of sound; similarity of stress; similarity in the syntax of phrases; similarity of position; similarities due to subjective attitudes—all enter in separate or combined form. Most conspicuous are confusions of the initial sounds of words; those for the leading words in the sentence receive about the same prominence of emphasis; thus corch and pool, noyful and joise, waiter and wetter. The reader need only reread the series of lapses just recorded, with his attention directed to the relative balance or equivalence of the confused sounds and words, to find convincing proof of the parallelism that determines such confusion. There is even a slight advantage in taking foreign sounds in which, with the meaning less prominent, the sound-values to our apperception stand out more conspicuously. We can appreciate how readily Alabasterbüchse becomes Alabüchsebaster (interchange), or Alabasterbachse (persistence), or Alabüsterbüchse (anticipation); while Paprikaschnitzel not only emerges as Piprikaschnatzel and the other variants, but is even recorded as being contorted into Schniprikapatzl. When, however, fröhliche Festfeier emerges before the astonished hearers as Festliche Fressfeier, one appreciates that the accidental pertinence of the result may have been a still deeper subconscious inducement to attract the utterance into the form that likewise meets the linguistic expectations.

What all this means in terms of psychological processes is that the constructive consciousness requires and utilizes the marginal areas that spread to either side of the progressive focus of utterance. The wider this span, the greater the area within which confusion is possible. Ordinarily lapses are confined to elements close to the central moment; occasionally they extend to the next line or the next measure of thought, while in leading up to a climax, the speaker maintains a distant subconsciousness thereof and occasionally betrays the fact by an inadvertent precipitation of what was to have been the final triumphant flourish. Quite the same relation holds within the sentence when it is a long and complex one. The German construction has an unenviable reputation in this respect, and certainly makes strenuous demands upon the architectural skill of the sentence-builder; the inclusion and sub-inclusion of phrase within phrase, each with rigidly regulated gender and case and mood and tense forms, the distant relations of the parts of the separable verbs, and the final mood and tense auxiliaries that must ever be held in mind to round up the series of grammatical obligations incurred en route,—these demand a wide and alert spread of consciousness and permit of little loitering by the wayside. A proficiency in subconsciously finding words for a thought already formulated, while at the same time shaping the next thought-period in conscious preparation, is a gift of prime importance to writer and speaker alike. It reaches a most developed application in dictating for publication. A remarkable talent of this type is ascribed by his amanuensis to Sir Walter Scott. He records that Sir Walter would continue to dictate while he searched for a book, found the desired passage, and absorbed its meaning. He thus kept going two trains of thought, the one arranged and ready to be spoken, and the other in logical preparation. "This I discovered by his sometimes introducing a word which was wholly out of place—entertained instead of denied, for example;—but which I presently found to belong to the next sentence, perhaps, four or five lines further on, which he had been preparing at the very moment he gave me the one that preceded it."

The intricate art of speech thus proceeds—though naturally with the subconsciousness begot of familiarity—by a preliminary projection, an outline staking of the sentence, not yet setting words in place, but mentally mapping their positions; then by the actual setting of the corner-posts and the raising of the framework upon these supports, the two proceeding together with an accompanying preparation for the details, that in due sequence enter into and embellish the complex structure. Yet the architectural, designing or constructive simile is inadequate, because the two procedures are so inextricably dovetailed, because each section receives its plan, foundation, details and finish in one. For the weaver of words does not, like the spider, send out—except in this provisional mental planning—the main radial lines of his web, and then take up in order the cross-threads from segment to segment; rather does the whole, mainrib and cross-lines, develop progressively as the thought finds expression in orderly sentences. He accomplishes this feat by the support of subconsciously delegated functions, that reflect years of trained experience, and cooperate with consummate skill, and ordinarily with no subordinate intrusions, in the centrally directed purpose.

We resume the survey of speech-lapses by observing another group, that suggests the confusions of conduct that occur in the abstracted handling of material situations. They have been called contaminations, coalescences, fusions and the like. They lay bare the subconscious alternatives from among which consciousness ordinarily selects properly the one chosen from the several called, but in this exceptional instance allows the submerged factor to project above the surface. Upon being asked whether she had heard a certain musical composition, a young lady had in mind to answer that she had heard scraps of it, or again that she had heard snatches of it, but actually said that she had heard scratches of it; with rubbers in the background of the mind, overshoes became ruvvershoes. With spank in mind, the threat to paddle the refractory youngster became, Well, I'll spaddle you[5] and a too hesitant wavering between it mists and it drizzles resulted in it mizzles. Unexpectedly lucid is the betrayal of an after-dinner speaker who planned to begin, unprepared as I am (Unvorbereitet wie ich bin), but had as a fact carefully rehearsed his part, and who actually said, unprepared as I have myself (Unvorbereitet wie ich mich habe).[6] Choosing between Scherz and Spass, the speaker said Das ist kein Sperz, just as we might say, That is no jost (jest and joke). Wishing to impart the information that he was at home until seven o'clock, and that indeed he was writing until that hour, the speaker said (and might just as well have written), I was at home until seven o'clock was I writing. The process has been graphically presented by indicating by the heavy line the above-the-threshold processes, and by the dotted line the sub-threshold impulses, the crossing point being the point of intrusion of the one into the field of the other.

Or thus:

The fact that we carry on a manifold activity in the expression of thought is thus sufficiently indicated, and finds marked parallelism, so far as the lapses are concerned, in the interchange of activities (the dipping of the brush into the ink, the handling of a key taken from the supposed stamp-box as though it were a postage stamp, the attempt to thread a thimble) induced by moments of abstraction; while the parallelism is completed when one or other of the commissions charged upon the mind emerges into utterance at the wrong occasion, and the preoccupied shopper asks the post-office clerk for individual salt-cellars instead of stamps, because that item is next on her list of commissions. A similar verbal interchange occurs when the absent-minded professor, in writing a testimonial, records that "Mr. A. has attended my remarkable lectures in chemistry with inorganic assiduity"; or asks at the toy-shop "for a two-year-old book for an indestructible child."[7] One may experimentally induce these intrusions by giving the mind two occupations, or exposing it to two sets of influences at the same time. In writing on one topic while thinking of another, or while listening to conversation, one may find in his written words some that found origin in, or were altered by what he heard, or by what became intruded into his writing from his extraneous meditations. A single instance: a clerk writing a pass for an employee while engrossed in the shipping of cylinders, writes From Lima to Cylinder instead of From Lima to Dayton. It is a familiar experience for teachers, in asking a question, with the answer prominent in consciousness, inadvertently to use the answer in framing the question.

The intrusion of the subconscious thus becomes a widely available formula to account for verbal as well as material slips of pen and tongue and hand; and the tendency to such lapses takes one of several distinctive forms, increasing with the similarity or suggestiveness of the confused situations, and most of all dependent upon the way in which the parts of the complex occupation lie in the mind, upon the momentary diversion of the attention from the central occupation, and everywhere upon the temperament and attentive habit of the subject. In these aspects, both in their larger features and with unexpected parallelism in detail, do the lapses of speech exhibit close analogies to the more general failures of adjustment in conduct of various types, that have in common with speech lapses the combined conscious and subconscious expression of reflection and intent.[8]

  1. This article will form an appendix in the volume, 'The Subsconscious,' shortly to appear from the press of Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Boston.
  2. I shall not consider the difficulties of speech-coordination, such as speaking, She sells sea shells, or, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, or in German, Die Katze tritt die Treppe krumm, or individually tripping words such as Detektivtaktik, though these are nothing more than pronounced cases of certain of the lapses considered. The one offers intrinsically difficult coordinations, upon which even deliberate effort may trip; while the other is usually accomplished with ease, but under released tension of guidance invites failure. Likewise have I, in citing instances, passed at once to the more complex and more natural ones, omitting those of formally simpler type. I must acknowledge my indebtedness for most of the illustrations to H. Heath Bawden: A Study of Lapses, 1900; and to Meringer and Meyer: Versprechen und Verlesen, 1895.
  3. This suggests the placing of the wrong arm first into the sleeve, with a consequent awkward feeling; or the exchange of hats without observing the absence of the familiar recognition-marks.
  4. The typewriting manipulations have an appreciably different status from those of writing, notably in the number of separate mechanisms (fingers) that each may participate in the reaction; yet typewriter lapses are common, and in part conform to the linguistic types. Letter interchange is decidedly the most frequent slip (rt for tr, oi for io, etc.), though the other formulæ also apply.
  5. Nonsense word makers (Lewis Carroll, Edwin Lear, et alii) seem to be guided by a feeling for this process, along with many other more fanciful and onomatopoetic attractions. The Hunting of the Snark may have a suggestion of a snake and a shark; Torrible Zone suggests torrid and horrible; slithy may be slimy and writhy. Yet these verbal acrobatics naturally involve, as well, any forms of contortion that give amusement and the sound-semblance of sense. Lewis Carroll's own characteristic elucidation is as follows: "For instance, take the two words fuming and furious. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but have it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards fuming, you will say fuming-furious; if they turn, even by a hair's breadth, towards furious, you will say furious-fuming; but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say frumious."
  6. I am assured that there is a tendency among the philologists to account for the paradoxical use of the negative and the intrusion of the negative in constructions in which it seems logically out of place, by this process of heading for the gateway of utterance with a double team, only one member of which can and should get through; it is as though the one that succeeds takes with it the harness of the other. The Frenchman seemingly has in mind to say both I fear my father will see me, and simultaneously I hope my father will not see me; and actually allows himself to say I fear my father will not see me. Similarly, with John is taller than James in mind, but also thinking the same thought as James is not as tall as John, the spirit of the Romance language constructions tolerates John is taller than James is not. Independently of the proof that may be brought to bear upon the correctness of this suggestion, it is interesting to consider whether the mental tendency, that gives rise to lapses of speech, may not also have been influential in shaping linguistic construction and usage.
  7. I can not extend the survey to take account of the distinctive lapses of thought, which, in common with the lapses considered, involve the formulation of a fairly definite thought that uncritically reaches expression in words, which amusingly or significantly miss or distort the intention. Such is the reply of the excited old soldier to the presentation of a sword upon an anniversary occasion: 'This sword, gentlemen, is the proudest moment of my life.' A survey of such lapses of thought, for which (though not for these exclusively) we have the special term 'bull,' would introduce more intricate yet related considerations.
  8. See 'The Lapses of Consciousness' in the Popular Science Monthly for October, 1905.