Political slips of the tongue

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Here we go again. Reporters and Republicans have been making a big deal out of two slips of the tongue that occurred in quick succession during yesterday's rally introducing Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate. The ABC News version, for example, is Obama Misspeaks, Calls Biden 'The Next President'; Biden Calls Obama 'Barack America':

When introducing his running mate, Obama said, "So let me introduce to you the next president – the next vice president of the US of America, Joe Biden."

And then when it was Biden's turn to speak, the Delaware senator called the presumptive Democratic nominee "Barack America" instead of Barack Obama.

"My friends, I don't have to tell you, this election year the choice is clear. One man stands ready to deliver change we desperately need. A man I’m proud to call my friend. A man who will be the next president of the United States, Barack America,” Biden said, per ABC News' Sunlen Miller.

Since we know that journalists' transcriptions are not always reliable, let's go to the recordings.

Senator Obama's slip was very simple and clear, and more or less as reported, if you expand ABC's "US" to "United States".

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So let me introduce to you [0.417]
the next president [0.886]
the next vice president [0.230]
of the United States of America [1.535]
Joe Biden!

As the pause durations (indicated in square brackets) indicate, he spent about half a second noticing his slip and deciding how to deal with it.

One thing that I didn't hear from any of the talking heads commenting on the rally, or see in any of the text-journalism reports this morning, is a simple point about word-sequence frequency. Current Google counts are 3.5M for "the next president", more than 100 times greater than the 30.6K for "the next vice president". But over the past 19 months, Senator Obama must have heard the phrase "the next president of the United States" thousands of times more often, because it will have been used several times a day, at every rally and event in a busy campaign schedule, while the phrase "the next vice president" will never or hardly ever have come up.

Senator Biden's slip was a little less crisp, and its causes were a little more complex.

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… a man I'm proud to call my friend [0.836]
a man who will be the next president of the United States [0.324]
Barack Americ- [4.252]
You know [1.529]
you know you learn a lot of things being up close with a guy

This time, it's not as simple as raw word-sequence frequency. Obviously the phrase "Barack America" is not especially common — or wasn't before this event. But there's still a phrase-frequency effect, because the conventional political introduction for presidential candidates is often given in  the form "…the next president of the United States of America" — as Barack Obama did in the slip-up discussed above. Biden left out the "of America" part, and as a result, the parts of his brain associated with the word America were all primed and ready to go.

In fact, at the very start of Biden's speech, he used the full form of the conventional introduction.

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and I'm proud to stand firm [0.424]
with the next president of the United States of America [0.318]
Barack Obama!

And it's not just the conventional political introduction that did that for him — according to the transcript of his remarks , he used America or American 32 times in 1667 words. In normal text, that's the sort of rate (about 1.9%) associated in general word-frequency lists with words like in and to. So Senator Biden's neural network for America wasn't just activated, it was throbbing.

Finally, "America" has a fair amount in common with "Obama" from the point of view of sound. They're both polysyllabic words that start with a vowel, end with a schwa, and contain only open syllables. When the -ri- syllable of "America" is fully reduced, as it often is in fluent speech — and was, for example, in the passage from the start of Biden's speech just cited — both words are three syllables with second-syllable stress.

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My impression is that we're likely to be hearing and reading a lot more about slips of the tongue by Joe Biden, a fluent speaker who sometimes seems to put his words out before all his neural activation levels have quite finished spreading, so to speak.

This is all explanation after the fact, but it's based on one of the most thoroughly studied areas in psycholinguistics, where theories are based on extensive collections of natural errors, as well as many studies of errors created in experimental settings.

Derek Smith has put a useful review on the web ("Speech Errors, Speech Production Models, and Speech Pathology"). For the present discussion, the most relevant work is based on a model proposed by Gary Dell in his widely-cited paper "A spreading-activation theory of retrieval in sentence production", Psychological Review, 93(3): 283-321, 1986:

The data to be accounted for by the theory are facts about speech errors, or slips of the tongue. [...] Freud (1901/1958) argued that slips, in addition to revealing unconscious motives, may provide “insight into the probable laws of the formation of speech” (p. 71). Meringer and Mayer (1895), who were among the first to draw attention to slips as a data source, hoped to discover the “mental mechanism in which the sounds of a word or sentence … are linked” (p. 10). More recently, Fromkin (1973) remarked that “speech error data … provide us with a window into linguistic processes and provide, to some extent, the laboratory data needed in linguistics” (pp. 43–44). Each of these researchers recognized that the inner workings of a highly complex system are often revealed by the way in which the system breaks down. The theory presented here specifies the kinds of breakdowns that are likely to occur, the constraints on the form of slips, and the conditions that precipitate them. In addition, the theory will deal with the tendency for errors to create meaningful combinations of items, the tendency for similar items in similar environments to slip with one another, and the influence of changes in the speaking rate on errors.

We've discussed the speech errors of politicians (and other people as well) many times over the years:

"You say Nevada, I say Nevahda" (1/3/2004)
"Weisbergism of the week" (4/27/2004)
"A CNN-ism?" (6/18/2004)
"Non-Bushism of the day" (9/27/2004)
"Trapped" (9/8/2004)
"Gibson scores a 'Bushism', with an assist to Kerry" (10/9/2004)
"Ceci n'est pas un Bushism" (10/15/2004)
"The way the cookie bounces" (12/20/2004)
"The Eternal General of the United States?" (5/5/2007)
"Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed" (7/9/2005)
"And they're just as ignorant as it used to do" (10/19/2005)
"Don't read it as something more than it's not" (10/29/2005)
"Has George W. Bush become more disfluent?" (11/17/2005)
"Trends in presidential disfluency" (11/26/2005)
"Presidential self-repair" (11/28/2005)
"The [sic]ing of the president" (1/12/2006)
"An editorial conflict of interest at Slate?" (6/22/2006)
"Productivity at the Bushism mine" (7/2/2006)
"Keep on truculent" (2/4/2007)
"'Republicans and Democratics': Hypercorrection or speech error?" (6/7/2007)
"A kinder, gentler speech error" (6/8/2007)
"An experimental control" (11/26/2007)
"Hoping to be haunted by legitimacy" (3/30/2008)

With respect to speech-production blunders all across the political spectum, our perspective has been consistent, . Everyone commits speech errors, even professional talking heads, and anyone who makes a big deal about particular examples is either a fool or a hypocrite. Since fatigue, stress, and complex ideas all promote speech errors, you can depend on political rhetoric to provide plenty of occasions for foolishness and hypocrisy.

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16 Comments »

  1. Joe said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    Barack America sounds to me like "black America" for some reason.

    And I think the Republicans are crazy to hype those. One, they're reinforcing that Obama has a competent VP. Two, they're reinforcing Obama's patriotism. Something they hope to undermine.

    Honestly, I'd tell the Democrats to make a "Barack America" t-shirt and thank the Republicans for hyping it.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    Joe: Honestly, I'd tell the Democrats to make a "Barack America" t-shirt and thank the Republicans for hyping it.

    According to Marc Ambinder, the RNC plans to set up a "Biden gaffe clock" on the web, and the Obama campaign responded that "RNC staffers shouldn't throw stones from their 7 glass houses." Good fun all around.

  3. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    Is it possible that Biden's previous brain aneurysms have to do with these neural slip-ups? (Or is the increased frequency for Biden merely a perceived one, not an actual one?)

    [(myl) I haven't seen any evidence that Biden's rate of disfluencies is especially high -- especially given how fast he often talks. His brain sometimes seems to go too fast for his mouth to keep up, but that's a property that he shares with many smart and verbal people that I know.]

    Also, could someone please count the number of times Biden said "literally" in that speech? Because it began to get on my nerves after the third or fourth time (from a language standpoint, not a political one).

    [(myl) I count 7, which in 1667 words overall is comparable to the frequency in general text of words like they and his, which is certainly a bit much. However, most of his literallys, at least in this speech, can literally be construed literally. And after 248 years, people who are annoyed by the figurative or extended senses of literally -- like me -- should get over it.]

  4. nascardaughter said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    One thing that I didn't hear from any of the talking heads commenting on the rally, or see in any of the text-journalism reports this morning, is a simple point about word-sequence frequency.

    Although I have seen variations on this idea from people commenting on stuff that talking heads have said.

  5. John Cowan said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    From the Jargon File:

    milliLampson /mil'@-lamp`sn/ /n./ A unit of talking speed, abbreviated mL. Most people run about 200 milliLampsons. The eponymous Butler Lampson (a CS theorist and systems implementor highly regarded among hackers) goes at 1000. A few people speak faster. This unit is sometimes used to compare the (sometimes widely disparate) rates at which people can generate ideas and actually emit them in speech. For example, noted computer architect C. Gordon Bell (designer of the PDP-11) is said, with some awe, to think at about 1200 mL but only talk at about 300; he is frequently reduced to fragments of sentences as his mouth tries to keep up with his speeding brain.

  6. Kellen said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    i'd wear a Barak America shirt.

  7. dr pepper said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

    How about "America is Barak!"

  8. Doc Rock said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

    . . . it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

  9. Joe said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

    > How about "America is Barak!"

    That would expand to "America is back" or "America is black" depending on the reader and would seem to generate more controversy than it's worth. But I might be wrong, too, especially if the latter reading is far less common.

    I'm surprised the Obama camp hasn't been *trumpeting* the "Barack America" (with a nice flag or two) thing as a way to counter the smears claiming he's not "patriotic enough." The Republicans have been rather successful in always attacking their opponents strengths head on. It might be worth doing that against smears, especially if it can be done in good humor. The good humor part being important, because the "it was a joke" excuse has fallen remarkably flat a few times already this season.

  10. Carl said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

    Why is this being reported? Verbal slip ups are only newsworthy if they "reveal" a hidden aspect of the speaker's character. For example, the Condi Rice "my husband" slip tells us that she works incredibly closely with President Bush. That's semi-interesting. Here however we "learn" that Obama thinks Biden is qualified to be President (and one should hope so, since constitutionally the job of the VP is to vote on ties and wait for the President to die) and that Biden thinks Obama is American. Wow! Stunning insights all around….

  11. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 24, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

    @John Cowan: I've only had elevator conversation (literally, in this case, about elevators) with Butler Lampson, but I did not get the impression that he was a particularly fast talker. (On the other hand, there is a poster I've seen in another person's office that is captioned "Butler Lampson is looking for a reason to stop reading your paper." Words to live by indeed.)

    @myl: why on earth is Flash required to listen to perfectly ordinary MP3 files?

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    Garrett Wollman: why on earth is Flash required to listen to perfectly ordinary MP3 files?

    Because (as far as I know) there's no useful standard way to access audio files of any kind in a web browser. Depending on your OS, your browser, and your browser settings, you'll get a pop-up offering to play the file, or a pop-up offering to save the file, or a new browser window playing the file via QuickTime, or a transfer to iTunes or to Windows Media Player, or etc., or etc. Some of these are slower and more annoying than others, but they're all a pain in the rear end.

    Compare this to the treatment of images, where the browser just shows you the *&%#! picture. Can you imagine if every time the browser encountered a .jpg or .gif or .png file it switched you to iPhoto to look at it, or asked you where you wanted it saved, or… ? Well, I'll stop ranting now, but the entire computing industry should hang its head in shame on this one.

    The flash player that I'm using at least dutifully plays the audio on a mouse click, for anyone who has flash installed. Which is almost everyone. If you can recommend a better solution that actually works, I'll be happy to use it.

  13. Christy Mason said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    Heard on NPR Saturday night in a profile of Joe Biden that he stuttered as a young man. I tried copying the link but I'm not a very sophisticated computer user.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93903313

  14. The Volokh Conspiracy said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

    Slips of the Tongue from Politicians:…

    Mark Liberman at Language Log has an excellent analysis of politicians' slips of the tongue, focusing on …

  15. The Volokh Conspiracy said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    Before Alleging Partisanship or Inconsistency, How About Doing Just a Bit of Research?…

    Responding to my post quoting Mark Liberman (Language Log) on politicians' slips of the tongue — here, Obama's and Biden's slips, a commente……

  16. ajay said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    When introducing his running mate, Obama said, "So let me introduce to you the next president

    Maybe he's just assuming he'll get shot before November?

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