Speech error of the week

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Mike Pence (R-IN), interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Fox News:

The critical segment:

Look we're- we're trying- we're trying to score a victory
for the Republican people.
For the Ameri- for the Republican peop-
trying to score a victory for the American people
not for the Republican party.

Mark Kleiman identifies this as "a classic Kinsley-gaffe", in reference to Michael Kinsley's remark that "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth".

But psycholinguists will recognize this as a classic word-substitution error. Rep. Pence means to say "…score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican party", but (either by exchange or anticipation) he says "Republican people" instead of "American people", and then has to correct himself.

Freud cited several examples of this sort of thing in his classic monograph The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, But modern investigations suggest that unconscious desires and fears play at best a very small role in such errors, which are a natural consequence of the instrinsic fragility of the human system for planning and executing spoken phrases. Here's what I wrote about this in the lecture notes for Linguistics 001:

Why should mistakes of these kinds occur? The basic facts of the case suggest the reason: talking is a hard thing to do! In fact, fluent speech articulation has been called our most complex motor skill.

Language is a complex and hierarchical system. Language use is creative, so that new utterance is put together on the spot out of the piece-parts made available by the language being spoken. A speaker is under time pressure, typically choosing about three words per second out of a vocabulary of 40,000 or more, while at the same time producing perhaps five syllables and a dozen phonemes per second, using more than 100 finely-coordinated muscles, each of which has a maximum gestural repetition rate of about three cycles per second or less. Word choices are being made, and sentences constructed, at the same time that earlier parts of the same phrase are being spoken.

Given the complexities of speaking, it's not surprising that about one slip of the tongue on average occurs per thousand words said. In fact, it's surprising that more of us are not like Mrs. Malaprop or Dr. Spooner.

But as I observed in an earlier post on a political slip of the tongue ("Fear North Dakota", 10/16/2004),

Of course, Freud's analysis of Freudian slips was generally anything but obvious. In chapter one of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he devoted 1,200 words and a diagram to explaining why he himself once had trouble retrieving the name of the painter Signorelli. His explanation involved concerns about sexual disfunction among the Turks of Bosnia, and a message that he had gotten a few weeks earlier while staying in the town of Trafoi, and — well, read it for yourself, I've reproduced it at the end of this post.

So the anti-Freudian argument can't be the lack of any Freudian explanation for a given slip, but rather the ease of generating speech errors designed to order, by methods that make sense given theories of priming and of the planning and execution of complex motor sequences.

Some other relevant posts: "Never anything but less than precise", 10/20/2005; "The Eternal General of the United States", 5/5/2007; "Republicans and Democratics", 6/7/2007; "Blunder maven speaks", 8/5/2007; "Name chain nomenclature", 4/19/2008; "The dangers of mental search-and-replace", 7/21/2008; "Political slips of the tongue", 8/24/2008; "2008 political parapraxis II", 8/26/2008; "Sarah Pawlenty?", 9/6/2008; "My fellow prisoners", 10/9/2008; "Hijab, hajib, whatever", 6/4/2009; "Racist sociolinguistics from El Rushbo?", 2/25/2010; "Aksking again", 2/26/2010;  "Surcame", 1/9/2011; "Palin perseverates", 3/29/2011.

[Tip of the hat to Victor Steinbok.]


  1. The Ridger said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    "But modern investigations suggest that unconscious desires and fears play at best a very small role in such errors"

    Aw, man. You scientists take all the fun out of everything.

  2. Cory said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you mean your mother.

  3. Acilius said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    It's especially surprising that slips like this don't happen more often among politicians performing on television. They usually present one-liners that they have memorized, such as "We're trying to score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican Party." So you'd expect their speech to feature many errors common when people are producing memorized speech. I haven't looked into it, but I would guess that word-substitution would figure high on the list of such errors.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Richard J. Daley: "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder."

    Two traps in there just waiting to be sprung.

  5. KevinM said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    Or what you might call alliterative anticipation:

    'Home is the hunter, home from sea,' my aunt finished the quotation in her own fashion, 'And the sailor home from the hill.'

    Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt

  6. D.O. said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    Great lecture, I must say, but Linguistics 001. Are we on the verge of using negative numbers? complex? quaternions? Or we will do it slowly and introduce just rationals first? Geology 003/4 anyone?

  7. KevinM said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Sorry – hit "submit" before I intended. I meant to wonder aloud whether it's really a case of inevitable transcription errors when choosing words on the fly. Do we more often mess up when our language is not organic to ourselves — like Mike Pence trying to deliver his talking-point zinger, or Graham Greene's aunt quoting Masefield? It seems likely to me, because composed quotations will contain rhetorical devices and parallel structures that lend themselves to random substitutions, especially when we're not expressing our own meanings but parroting the thoughts of others.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    Clearly Pense is exhibiting concerns about sexual dysfunction among the Turks of Bosnia. I feel his pain.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    (@KevinM: Stevenson, not Masefield. I have to work hard not to say "the sea".)

  10. KevinM said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    @JFriedman. Right you are. I was just cleverly going meta to illustrate my point. (Actually, I mixed it up with "I must go down to the sea again…")

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    And just to illustrate the point further, Masefield actually wrote 'I must down' – or at least that is how it was printed in the official edition – though the musical setting by John Ireland has 'go', and apparently Masefield is on record reciting it that way.

    On another matter, what was Daley trying to say?

  12. Geoff Nunberg said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

    "Modern investigations suggest that unconscious desires and fears play at best a very small role in such errors." If that's a statistical claim, it's reasonable, given that the great majority of these errors have no plausible — or even implausible — rooting in psychodynamics. On the other hand, I don't see how science could demonstrate that those motivations don't underlie some of the slips that do suggest unconscious material bubbling to the surface, beyond asserting — not clear how you can do anything more than assert it — that there can't be a deterministic explanation of why any particular error of this type occurs when it does. In that case, the most you could say by way of extenuating Pence's fumble here is that he might have been simply unlucky — and that in another, linguistically analogous context, he might just as likely have referred to "the Democratic people." Well, I suppose…

  13. Joe Fineman said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    I can't find the place at the moment, but somewhere in _The Invisible Writing_ Arthur Koestler recalls making a speech, toward the end of his membership in the Communist Party, in which, meaning to call the Party the great _Freiheitsbewegung_ (freedom movement), he said _Freiheitsberaubung_ (freedom robbery). He remarks that luckily the Communists did not believe in Freud.

  14. Xmun said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 12:41 am

    @Jerry Friedman: It's "the sea" on Stevenson's tomb! I have climbed Mount Vaea and seen it.

  15. M said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you mean your mother."

    Surely it's when you mean one thing, but say your mother.

  16. mary said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    my grandmother said, more than once, 'a landmine of opportunity'.

  17. Sili said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you mean your mother.

    How many Freudian psychoanalysts does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Two. One to change the bulb, and one to hold the penis.


  18. Stan said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    As the old saying has it, a slip of the tongue is no fault of the mind. Sometimes.

  19. Theo Vosse said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    Priming is a process. Theories of priming give a bit of a hand-waiving explanation of speech errors, assuming several words get primed and that is the only factor. But why would Republican be primed? It is not semantically nor phonetically so close to American that it can be expected to happen spontaneously.

    The idea that he had prepared some one-liner makes some sense, but you would also expect that experienced people wouldn't come up with tongue twisters for sound bites.

    [(myl) Well, one of the most reliable speech-error effects is the tendency for errors to involve words of the same syntactic category. And in the target phrase "trying to score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican party", American and Republican the only two adjectives. And in this case, those two have several other properties that make them fertile ground for an exchange or anticipation error: the same number of syllables and stress patterns; the same adjectival ending -an; parallel (and indeed contrastive) places in the two phrases, modifying immediately following nouns (people and party) with the same number of syllables, the same stress pattern, and the same initial consonant; and so on. In sum, a speech error jackpot.]

  20. marie-lucie said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    The words "victory" and "Republican" must have been associated often enough both in the speech of his colleagues and in his own thoughts that "a victory for" triggered "the Republican people" instead of "the American people", even if he consciously meant to say the latter in order NOT to sound partisan.

  21. Fred said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 4:41 am

    The joke amongst my friends stems from the mistaken utterance of a female in the group: "I have a sock in my hole". She of course meant the flip of that: "I have a hole in my sock".

  22. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    @Andrew (not…): "I must down" makes for very strained meter, and I'm sure I learned it as "I must go down" in school. I suspect a typo in the official edition.

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