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Speech error

A speech error, commonly referred to as a slip of the tongue (Latin: lapsus linguae, or occasionally self-demonstratingly, lipsus languae) or misspeaking, is a deviation (conscious or unconscious) from the apparently intended form of an utterance. They can be subdivided into spontaneously and inadvertently produced speech errors and intentionally produced word-plays or puns. Another distinction can be drawn between production and comprehension errors. Errors in speech production and perception are also called performance errors.

Speech errors are common among children, who have yet to refine their speech, and can frequently continue into adulthood. They sometimes lead to embarrassment and betrayal of the speaker's regional or ethnic origins. However, it is also common for them to enter the popular culture as a kind of linguistic "flavoring". Speech errors may be used intentionally for humorous effect, as with Spoonerisms.

Within the field of psycholinguistics, speech errors fall under the category of language production. Types of speech errors include: exchange errors, perseveration, anticipation, shift, substitution, blends, additions, and deletions. The study of speech errors contributes to the establishment/refinement of models of speech production.

Speech errors are made on an occasional basis by all speakers. They occur more often when speakers are nervous, tired, anxious or intoxicated. During live broadcasts on TV or on the radio, for example, nonprofessional speakers and even hosts often make speech errors because they are under stress. Some speakers seem to be more prone to speech errors than others. For example, there is a certain connection between stuttering and speech errors. Charles F. Hockett explains that "whenever a speaker feels some anxiety about possible lapse, he will be led to focus attention more than normally on what he has just said and on what he is just about to say. These are ideal breeding grounds for stuttering." Another example of a “chronic sufferer” is Reverend William Archibald Spooner, whose peculiar speech may be caused by a cerebral dysfunction, but there is much evidence that he invented his famous speech errors (spoonerisms).

An outdated explanation for the occurrence of speech errors is the one of Sigmund Freud, who assumed that speech errors are the result of an intrapsychic conflict of concurrent intentions. “Virtually all speech errors [are] caused by the intrusion of repressed ideas from the unconscious into one’s conscious speech output”, Freud explained. This gave rise to the expression Freudian slip. His theory was rejected because only a minority of speech errors were explainable by his theory.

Types of speech errors
Type Definition Example
Addition "Additions add linguistic material." Target: We
Error: We and I
Anticipation "A later segment takes the place of an earlier segment." Target: reading list
Error: leading list
Blends Blends are a subcategory of lexical selection errors. More than one item is being considered during speech production. Consequently, the two intended items fuse together. Target: person/people
Error: perple
Deletion Deletions or omissions leave some linguistic material out. Target: unanimity of opinion
Error: unamity of opinion
Exchange Exchanges are double shifts. Two linguistic units change places. Target: getting your nose remodeled
Error: getting your model renosed
Lexical selection error The speaker has "problems with selecting the correct word". Target: tennis racquet
Error: tennis bat
Malapropism, classical The speaker has the wrong beliefs about the meaning of a word. Consequently, he produces the intended word, which is semantically inadequate. Therefore, this is a competence error rather than a performance error. Malapropisms are named after 'Mrs. Malaprop', a character from Richard B. Sheridan’s eighteenth-century play The Rivals. Target:The flood damage was so bad they had to evacuate the city.
Error: The flood damage was so bad they had to evaporate the city.
Metathesis "Switching of two sounds, each taking the place of the other." Target: pus pocket
Error: pos pucket
Morpheme-exchange error Morphemes change places. Target: He has already packed two trunks.
Error: He has already packs two trunked.
Morpheme stranding Morphemes remain in place but are attached to the wrong words. Target: He has already packed two trunks.
Error: He has already trunked two packs.
Omission cf. deletions Target: She can’t tell me.
Error: She can tell me.
Perseveration "An earlier segment replaces a later item." Target: black boxes
Error: black bloxes
Shift "One speech segment disappears from its appropriate location and appears somewhere else." Target: She decides to hit it.
Error: She decide to hits it.
Sound-exchange error Two sounds switch places. Target: Night life [nait laif]
Error: Knife light [naif lait]
Spoonerism A spoonerism is a kind of metathesis. Switching of initial sounds of two separate words. They are named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who probably invented most of his famous spoonerisms. Target: I saw you light a fire.
Error: I saw you fight a liar.
Substitution One segment is replaced by an intruder. The source of the intrusion is not in the sentence. Target: Where is my tennis racquet?
Error: Where is my tennis bat?
Word-exchange error A word-exchange error is a subcategory of lexical selection errors. Two words are switched. Target: I must let the cat out of the house.
Error: I must let the house out of the cat.
Segment Example
Distinctive or phonetic features Target: clear blue sky
Error: glear plue sky (voicing)
Phonemes or sounds Target: ad hoc
Error: odd hack
Sequences of sounds Target:spoon feeding
Error: foon speeding
Morphemes Target: sure
Error: unsure
Words Target: I hereby deputize you.
Error: I hereby jeopardize you.
Phrases Target: The sun is shining./The sky is blue.
Error: The sky is shining.

Target: Take my bike.
Error: Bake my bike.
Target: Take my bike.
Error: Bake my bike.
Target: He pulled a tantrum.
Error: He pulled a pantrum.
Target: He pulled a tantrum.
Error: He pulled a pantrum.
Speech errors involve substitutions, shifts, additions and deletions of segments. "In order to move a sound, the speaker must think of it as a separate unit." Obviously, one cannot account for speech errors without speaking of these discrete segments. They constitute the planning units of language production. Among them are distinctive features, phonemes, morphemes, syllables, words and phrases. Victoria Fromkin points out that "many of the segments that change and move in speech errors are precisely those postulated by linguistic theories." Consequently, speech errors give evidence that these units are psychologically real.
"There is a complex set of rules which the language user follows when making use of these units." Among them are for example phonetic constraints, which prescribe the possible sequences of sounds. Moreover, the study of speech error confirmed the existence of rules that state how morphemes are to be pronounced or how they should be combined with other morphemes. The following examples show that speech errors also observe these rules:
Target: He likes to have his team rested. [rest+id]
Error: He likes to have his rest teamed. [ti:m+d]
Target: He likes to have his team rested. [rest+id]
Error: He likes to have his rest teamed. [ti:m+d]
Target: Both kids are sick. [kid+z]
Error: Both sicks are kids. [sik+s]
Target: Both kids are sick. [kid+z]
Error: Both sicks are kids. [sik+s]
Here the past tense morpheme resp. the plural morpheme is phonologically conditioned, although the lemmas are exchanged. This proves that first the lemmas are inserted and then phonological conditioning takes place.
Target: Don’t yell so loud! / Don’t shout so loud!
Error: Don’t shell so loud!
Target: Don’t yell so loud! / Don’t shout so loud!
Error: Don’t shell so loud!
"Shout" and "yell" are both appropriate words in this context. Due to the pressure to continue speaking, the speaker has to make a quick decision which word should be selected. This pressure leads to the speaker’s attempt to utter the two words simultaneously, which resulted in the creation of a blend. According to Charles F. Hockett there are six possible blends of "shout" and "yell". Why did the speaker choose "shell" and not one of the alternatives? The speaker obeyed unconscious linguistic rules because he selected the blend, which satisfied the linguistic demands of these rules the best. Illegal non-words are for example instantaneously rejected.
In conclusion, the rules which tell language users how to produce speech must also be part of our mental organization of language.
Target: My thesis is too long.
Error: My thesis is too short.
Target: My thesis is too long.
Error: My thesis is too short.
In case of substitution errors both segments mostly belong to the same category, which means for example that a noun is substituted for a noun. Lexical selection errors are based on semantic relations such as synonymy, antonymy or membership of the same lexical field. For this reason the mental lexicon is structured in terms of semantic relationships.
Target: George’s wife
Error: George’s life
Target: George’s wife
Error: George’s life
Target: fashion square
Error: passion square
Target: fashion square
Error: passion square
Some substitution errors which are based on phonological similarities supply evidence that the mental lexicon is also organized in terms of sound.
Four generalizations about speech errors have been identified:
  • "particuly" (particularly) ← elision
  • "syntaxically" (syntactically) ← vocabulary
  • Speech errors provide investigators with insights into the sequential order of language production processes.
  • Speech errors clue investigators in on the interactivity of language production modules.
  • The existence of lexical or phonemic exchange errors provides evidence that speakers typically engage in forward planning their utterances. It seems that before the speaker starts speaking the whole utterance is available.
  • Performance errors supply evidence for the psychological existence of discrete linguistic units.
  • One can infer from speech errors that speakers adhere to a set of linguistic rules.
  • Substitution errors, for instance, reveal parts of the organization and structure of the mental lexicon.
  • Errors in speech are non-random. Linguists can elicit from the speech error data how speech errors are produced and which linguistic rules they adhere to. As a result, they are able to predict speech errors.
  • These four generalizations support the idea of the lexical bias effect. This effect states that our phonological speech errors generally form words rather than non-words. Baars (1975) showed evidence for this effect when he presented word pairs in rapid succession and asked participants to say both words in rapid succession back. In most of the trials, the mistakes made still formed actual words.


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