What would Freud say?

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At a press conference yesterday, Paul Ryan announced that he won't be running for re-election this fall, explaining that

uh to be clear I am not resigning
I intend to full my serve term as I was elected to do
but I will be retiring in January
leaving this majority in good hands with a-
what I believe is a very bright future

The video indicates that Mr. Ryan was reading a  pre-composed statement, and his delivery also has the tone and rhythm of reading rather than spontaneous speech — perhaps with a few interpolations, such as the hedge "what I believe is" apparently interpolated between "with" and "a very bright future".

So it's surprising to hear the word-exchange error between serve and full. I haven't been able to find relevant estimates, but such errors are surely rare in reading by practiced political performers like Mr. Ryan — and when they occur, they're usually going to be flagged in the press, as this one was.

It's true that exchange errors in speech often involve swapping nearby words, as indicated in this plot from Gary Dell, "Speaking and Misspeaking", 1995:

On the other hand, it's less common to exchange words of different lexical categories, like serve and full in "full my serve term". Thus Dell et al., "Connectionist models of language production: lexical access and grammatical encoding", Cognitive Science 1999:

Word substitutions and exchanges tend to involve words of the same grammatical class, such as “please pass the fork,” in which “fork” replaces “salt,” keeping the utterance grammatical while altering its meaning. Within a frame-and-slot model, exchanges across grammatical classes such as “please salt the pass ” are unlikely because they involve two violations: a noun in a verb slot and a verb in a noun slot.

And that's not the only puzzling slip in this performance — here's a bit of the earlier context:

this has been one of the two greatest honors of my life
the job provides incredible opportunities
what- it- the truth is
it's easy for it to take over everything in your life
and you can't just let that happen
because there are other things in life that can be ((flitting)) as well
namely your time as a husband and a dad
uh that's why today I am announcing that this year will be my last one as a member of the house

"Flitting"? That's what it sounds like he said:

Maybe a blend of fitting and fleeting? Anyhow, the lowered F2 in the region just after the release of the [f] is hard to explain in another way:

Speech errors are popularly known as "Freudian slips", due to the influence of their treatment in Sigmund Freud's 1901 work  Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens ("On the Psychopathology of Everyday Life"). Over the last 50 years or so, psycholinguists have called this view seriously into question. From Dell's 1995 "Speaking and Misspeaking":

Most people associate the study of speech errors with Freud and with the claim that slips result from a conflict between what one plans to say and some unconscious intention. […] In fact, the orthodox Freudian view of speech errors has at least three problems. First, the approach is characterized by interpretation of slips after the fact. […] The second problem is that, when one looks informally for psychodynamic influences in slips that are collected from unbiased sources such as tape recordings, one is hard-pressed to find them, So, Freudian interpretations may be hard to come up with for most real slips, even when one tries after the fact. Finally, even if we grant that slips are psychodynamically caused, we are going to have to acknowledge that this perspective offers little insight into the complexity of the data. As we will show, speech errors come in all shapes and sizes, but we can make sense of this complexity only by adopting an alternative perspective, one that focuses on the structure of language and its use.

The alternative to the Freudian view that this chapter develops is that the characteristics of slips are the result of the information-processing requirements of producing language. We will thus try to explain why someone says "prevent" instead of "present," not by discovering their repressed wishes but by explicating the task  of utterance generation.

But today we'll let Sigmund have the last word — the end of chapter 5, "Mistakes in Speech", pp. 113-114 of  Brill's 1914 translation Psychopathology of Everyday Life:

[H]ere, as in the former cases, it is the inner conflict that is betrayed to us through the disturbance in speech. I really do not believe any one will make mistakes in talking in an audience with His Majesty, in a serious love declaration, or in defending one's name and honour before a jury ; in short, people make no mistakes where they are all there, as the saying goes. Even in criticizing an author's style we are allowed and accustomed to follow the principle of explanation, which we cannot miss in the origin of a single speech-blunder. A clear and unequivocal manner of writing shows us that here the author is in harmony with himself, but where we find a forced and involved expression aiming at more than one target, as appropriately expressed, we can thereby recognize the participation of an unfinished and complicated thought, or we can hear through it the stifled voice of the author's self-criticism.


  1. bks said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    He's not resigning his seat, but it looks like he'll have to resign as Speaker:
    So +1 for Sigmund.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 8:36 am

    I heard him say that and immediately thought, What would Liberman say?

  3. Tim Leonard said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 9:00 am

    Ryan may have intended "because there are other things in life that [must] be fit in as well".

  4. Robert said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 9:08 am

    It sounds like he has tasted the entire worm.

  5. Corby said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 10:10 am

    Although Ryan's a seasoned speaker and politician, this is a unique moment in his career and was therefore perhaps uniquely stressful, and "he may not have been all there" to paraphrase Freud. Anyway, the fact that the words he exchanged have the same number of syllables is probably relevant too.

  6. Chris Button said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

    Maybe a blend of fitting and fleeting?

    The alternative to the Freudian view that this chapter develops is that the characteristics of slips are the result of the information-processing requirements of producing language.

    To take the non-Freudian approach, how about treating "fleeting" /ˈfliːt.ɪŋ/ as undergoing a slightly exaggerated fortis clipping causing such a degree of shortening that the quality of the vowel was also affected /iː/ > /i/ > /ɪ/ to result in something closer to "flitting" /ˈflɪt.ɪŋ/ (by comparison, I'm thinking of different dialect/speaker variations of "happy" /ˈhæp.i/ which can surface as /ˈhæp.ɪ/ with a shorter second syllable due to lack of stress and /ˈhæp.iː/ with a longer second syllable due to it being open). The only real issue I can see is that Ryan's /t/ is of course tapped as lenis /ɾ/ intervocalically such that /ˈfliːɾ.ɪŋ/ would not undergo any fortis clipping unless the effect of formal speech is factored in where taps can be less pronounced (due to more careful articulation) such that perhaps Ryan's lenis tap is surfacing after the fortis clipping has occurred.

  7. cervantes said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

    "Full" might have been pulled by "fulfill" or "fill." Once he'd said it the slot was taken and serve was there to take the next one — which also could have been influenced by "term of service." "Fulfill my term of service" gets mangled into full my serve term. At least that's how I see the synapses misfiring.

  8. International Psychoanalysis » Blog Archive » What would Freud say? said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 3:11 pm

    […] Click Here to Read: What would Freud say? by Mark Liberman on the Language Log website on April 12, 2018. […]

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 4:01 pm

    No one gets tongue-tied in a serious declaration of love? I guess Cyrano is out of a job then.

  10. 번하드 said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

    Now I'm truly puzzled.
    In the Alps, in winter, don't they salt passes?

  11. Ray said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

    sounds clearly like:

    the job provides incredible opportunities, but it — the truth is — it's easy for it to take over everything in your life and you can't just let that happen because there are other things in life that can be fleeting as well, namely your time as a husband and a dad…

  12. Viseguy said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 11:34 pm

    I intend
    to full my serve term,
    lame duck quacks

  13. David Marjanović said,

    April 13, 2018 @ 6:47 am

    perhaps Ryan's lenis tap is surfacing after the fortis clipping has occurred

    Sounds likely.

    In the Alps, in winter, don't they salt passes?

    Streets, not whole passes…

  14. Topher Cooper said,

    April 13, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

    Freud pretty clearly used "Freudian slips" either as a kind of "projective test" like mechanism to reach conclusions or to prove to himself and his patient that his theory about that patient was correct. But the idea isn't completely wacky. "Spreading activation" (SA) models of memory recovery — especially language — from connectionist cognitive theories split the difference. There is enough good lab evidence for SA that it probably represents a good approximate, partial description of whatever goes on between our ears. Mostly its been tested on understanding, but it can plausibly be extended to word choice in speech.

    The idea is that "somehow" knowledge consists of a network of concepts. The connections go both ways, and the "concepts" would include words, word-senses, images, and associations. The idea is that each concept has a particular "activation level" at any given time. When that concept is used, i.e., a word is used in a conversation, not only does it get its activation level goosed up, but some of its boost in activation is spread to everything it connects to, and this propagates through multiple steps getting ever weaker. When one hears, for example, a word and are trying to recover the correct word sense, one doesn't need to check each possible word sense and then look through the network to see if it is on topic (where there is likely to be multiple pure "topics" going at a time), or if it is associated with words that might be on topic, etc. One can mostly just choose the word sense with the highest activation level, though if there are ties or it doesn't make sense some extra work can be done to disambiguate.

    A simplistic example of an experiment might be that a bunch of subjects are given two, supposedly separate, psychology tests. First there is a reading comprehension story. And then a number of words are given to each subject and they are, perhaps, asked to do a quick sketch of each word. In this simplified case, only one word is actually relevant, the rest are cover. One third of the subjects do their reading on a gardening story, one third on a sports story, and one third on a story about Halloween. The word is "bat". The prediction is that the readers of the sports story (which isn't specifically about baseball) are more likely to draw a baseball bat than the control group (gardening) while the Halloween readers are more likely to draw the flying animal.

    Applying this to speech generation, if you've got something on your mind as what you are trying to talk about, when you are trying to fetch the appropriate word to use, you are more likely to choose one that is also relevant to that other topic. If you are stressed and your having trouble thinking straight (think of it as adding noise into the examination of activation as well as the mechanism that double checks the results) then there is a possibility that a word chosen will end up being entirely wrong for what is being talked about, perhaps in the direction of the "other topic" or perhaps just random or based on other kinds of things.

    This doesn't demand that the two (or more) concepts are in conflict a la Freud, though a conflict is likely to add noise to the process and direct conflict is likely to increase the common activation making near ties more common.

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