Santorum’s Slipping Tongue: What Do Speech Errors Really Reveal About Inner Thoughts?

By Julie Sedivy | April 2, 2012 2:13 pm

Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.

Last week, a verbal stumble by Republican candidate Rick Santorum led to a fresh batch of accusations that he harbors racist sentiments. Here is a video clip and transcript, from a speech delivered on March 27th 2012 in Janesville, Wisconsin:

We know, we know the candidate Barack Obama, what he was like. The anti-war government nig- uh, the uh America was a source for division around the world.”

Almost immediately, this video clip began to zip around the internet, with many people arguing that Santorum had caught himself in the middle of uttering a racial slur against Barack Obama, inadvertently revealing his true attitude. The presumption behind these arguments is that “Freudian slips” reflect a layer of thoughts and attitudes that sometimes slip past the mental guards of consciousness and bubble to the surface. That they’re the window to what someone was really thinking, despite his best efforts to conceal it.

But decades of research in psycholinguistics reveal that speech errors are rarely this incriminating. The vast majority of them come about simply because of the sheer mechanical complexity of the act of speaking. They’re less like Rorschach blot tests and more like mundane assembly-line mistakes that didn’t get caught by the mind’s inner quality control.

Speech errors occur because when it comes to talking, the mind cares much more about speed than it does about accuracy. We literally speak before we’re done thinking about what we’re going to say, and this is true not just for the more impetuous amongst us, but for all speakers, all of the time. Speech production really is like an assembly line, but an astoundingly frenzied one in which an incomplete set of blueprints is snatched out of the hands of the designers by workers eager to begin assembling the product before it’s fully sketched out.

The assembly process—that is, the process of actually choosing and uttering specific words to express the ideas in the “blueprint”—is itself highly error-prone. Any one of a number of things can go wrong. For example, the word-chooser might forget that he’s already sent along instructions for a specific word, and request that word twice by mistake. Or in the heat of the moment, one word might get chosen instead of another simply because the two look a lot alike. Or the word-builders might put the wrong pieces together. This often happens with speech errors that are called “spoonerisms,” where two sounds get exchanged—leading to odd results like saying “queer old dean” instead of “dear old queen.”

All this chaos leads to errors and disfluencies in about five percent of sentences uttered, most of which are easily glossed over by listeners. Psycholinguists have long been fascinated by speech errors, publishing hundreds of studies on the topic, often using clever methods to induce slips of the tongue in the lab. What do all these studies tell us about the inner workings of a speaker’s mind? Well, lots. But not so much about the attitudes that a speaker might be trying to suppress. Rather, they tell us a lot about what speech production looks like, allowing scientists to build detailed models of the entire assembly-line process. This makes speech errors plenty riveting if you’re a language geek. But they’re hardly grounds for making judgments about someone’s “true” opinions.

Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about the complicated process of language production can easily lead people to jump to false conclusions about the underlying causes of so-called “Freudian slips.” For example, in 2007, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was taken to task for confusing the names “Obama” and “Osama” and suffered accusations of deliberate political fear-mongering. And in 2006, radio broadcaster Dave Lenihan lost his job over inadvertently uttering a racial slur while discussing the prospect of Condoleezza Rice as commissioner for the national Football League. Here’s what Lenihan said:

She’s got the patent resumé of somebody that has serious skill. She loves football, she’s African-American, which would be kind of a big coon. A big coon. Oh my God – I totally, totally, totally, totally am sorry for that. I didn’t mean that.

Lenihan later claimed that he was aiming to say “coup” and mis-pronounced the word, an explanation that would strike a language scientist as wildly plausible. The goof may well have been a blend of the parts of the words “coup” and “boon”, either of which would have been reasonable words in context, and whose sound similarity would have increased the probability of the blend.

No matter. Enough listeners expressed outrage at what they saw as Lenihan’s thinly veiled racist attitudes and he got the boot.

It’s impossible to know exactly what led to Santorum’s slip. But it could easily have come from any one of a number of assembly-line failures. He may simply have been changing course midstream in his sentence while uttering a word like “negotiator.” Or the offending syllable may have come from a word that he was planning to utter later in the sentence, or sounds may have gotten swapped around in the word-building stage.

Rick Santorum may or may not hold racist attitudes. But we can’t tell from his slips of the tongue. To use speech errors as evidence of his deeply held sentiments is about as scientific as dunking a woman into the river to see if she floats before declaring her a witch.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • vel

    It could have been assembly line failures *or* he’s exactly the extreme right-wing man that doesn’t stand up for the truth when his supporters still scream that Obama doesn’t have an American birth certificate. One that has the words ” One can try to excuse his words but it certainly seems that this sequence of word ” The anti-war government nig-” is exactly how this man would speak if he didn’t think anyone who would object to it was listening.

  • Matt

    @vel

    How about we judge people for what they actually say instead of what you think they would say? To do anything else, especially given the linguistic evidence in the post, would be incredibly irresponsible and unfair. Besides, if you think ”The anti-war government nig-” is how somebody would actually phrase something you are looking way too hard.

  • Sam

    This is all totally interesting, but it doesn’t seem to rule out the possibility that speech errors are influenced by beliefs, attitudes, habits of mind, or agendas. The author herself notes that the vast body of research reveals little about attitudes. But while she writes that this causes people to “jump to false conclusions,” it seems to me it really just causes them to make hypotheses that, so far, science has little to illuminate one way or the other. I would agree that in many of these public cases we may be reading into it a little too much. But is it not possible that the specific forms the errors take might be somehow shaped by the culture of the mind? After all, even examining assembly line errors can tell us something about the conditions of the factory floor.

  • Retiring Guy

    Decades of research aside, Julie has twisted herself into quite a pretzel.

  • Brian Too

    Oh the irony! A self-professedly unscientific man, criticized on the basis of unscientific evidence.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    @ Sam: Absolutely right. “Unsupported conclusions” would be more accurate than “false conclusions”—thanks for your careful read and thoughtful comment. However, given that we don’t know whether attitudes influence speech errors, and we do know that “mechanical” failures do lead to speech errors, on balance, it would seem more responsible to attribute errors to the latter than the former, though of course we can’t be sure.

  • Rob

    I do not intend to vote for him, but declaring that someone is racist because they got tongue tied and they tried to say a word beginning with an “n” is absurd. Look at the context, government “negativist” maybe. How about negligence? Government negating? Until his close friends come forward saying “Oh yes, he says that all the time”, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Kaviani

    I might agree if this were an isolated incident. His Iowa remark about “black people” that he later and bemusingly redacted as “blah people” (uh, ok…) doesn’t give him much wiggle room as far as I am concerned.

    If he’s not a racist, he certainly has a knack for blurting racist things, and that’s not a very endearing executive trait.

  • Justin

    I would argue that even in the slip of the tongue was in fact going to be “the N-word,” it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a racist (there are TONS of other reasons to assume that… but I digress). As our minds are very associatve, I have to wonder if just knowing the word exists is enough for the brain to accidnetally pull it out.

    True story: One time I was working in a coffee shop, and this young man came in – a regular. He asked me if the chocolate chip cookies were soft. He was wearing a חַי necklace and looked like someone I would have gone to synongogue with growing up (I was raised in a Jewish household.) My response to his questions – “Yes, they’re very Jewy” instead of CHEWY. I couldn’t believe that word slipped out of my mouth in such a context. It is not merely enough to claim that the wrong phenome or whatever popped out. I think my mind made a whole slew of connections – my upbringing, the necklace, etc – and I had a genuine Freudian slip. Needless to say, I was very embarassed, and I’m sure had I said “I’m Jewish too!” as a reason to NOT be offended would have sounded like a lie, even though it was not!

  • jason

    Is he a racist? Or a bigot? or simple blinded by stereotypes. I assume,given the fact that most readers here are above average intelligence that by using the term racist you actually are suggesting that he believes in the inherent genetic superiority of the “white race” as opposed to just holding a negative view of a certain class of people.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    @Kaviani:

    It’s less obvious to me that the “blah people” episode was a speech error—unlike the “nig” example, there was no obvious disfluency, and there’s also no obviously good psycholinguistic explanation like there might be with the Dave Lenihan case, and the Obama/Osama errors. I’ll have more to say about the “blah people” example when I have time later today, but in the meantime, I think Justin’s point is worth making, and you can also find some additional discussion about it on Language Log here (and also a discussion of the “nig example here).

  • Noel Kurtz

    Julie Sedivy’s professional comments are interesting and elucidating, but come down to stating that we can’t know for certain whether Santorum meant to say “nigger” and caught himself, or it was simply and solely an elocution error. But that is a false choice as elocution errors are unlikely to be random. Indeed, it is apparent that – intentional or not – Santorum started to say “nigger” as no other word starts with “nig” (“negotiate” is a very long stretch). and that is pretty clear proof that “nigger” is in Santorum’s lexicon as only someone in the habit of using that word is likely to make that slip. Furthermore, in the context of flinging pejoratives at Obama it absolutely makes sense that that word – the ultimate of pejoratives – would inadvertently “slip out.” Furthermore, Santorum is infamous for “shooting from the hip,” so is likely to make such a slip. so while Sedivy is right to say we should give Santorum the benefit of the doubt – as he did stop short – the facts strongly suggest that Santorum is indeed racist.

  • fortune fay

    We naturally interpret his partial utterance in context of previous comments.
    If the words coming out of someone’s mouth don’t indicate a speakers attitudes, what does? His nonverbal communications creep me out with an excess of angry scowling and finger stabbing gestures.

    I think the frequency of these “errors” are not as common as stated in the article. If there were sofa king many, I think we would notice and remember more of them. The author may be hawking about them as so frequent and innocent because she writes articles on the subject, even mentioning they had to manipulate the experimental situations to create examples.

  • Matt B.

    I figure the “blah” error was caused by accidentally skipping over the word “people’s”, and getting partway through “lives” before starting the phrase over. He got through [la-] of “lives” with a [b] added on the front caused by opening the mouth, and the seeming [k] comes from the glottal stop that one makes when trying to stop speaking suddenly. So it was [(b)la? pipulz laivz].

    I haven’t had time to keep up with more than Bad Astronomy (I got here today from Thom Hartmann’s newsletter), but if this blog covers linguistics very often, I’ll have to make time for it.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    @ Noel Kurtz: The point is, we can’t even be sure that “nig” was the syllable that Santorum planned to utter—there is always a possibility that the sounds whatever he planned to utter got garbled.

    @fortune fay: I sometimes give my students the following exercise: record a normal conversation between two or more people. Then choose forty sentences at random, transcribe them, and determine how many of these are actually fully-formed, fluent, grammatical sentences of English. It’s often truly startling to read a transcript of spoken language—it sometimes reads as downright incomprehensible. But when we’re hearing language, we are extraordinarily adept at glossing over the errors and disfluencies. And there’s evidence that even young babies gloss over and discount disfluent utterances.

    Finally, getting back to the “black people” comment, my thoughts on this turned out to be much longer than could fit into comments, so I posted them over on Language Log, where I can be found when I’m not hanging out at The Crux.

  • http://www.ferretbrain.com Dan Hemmens

    As our minds are very associatve, I have to wonder if just knowing the word exists is enough for the brain to accidnetally pull it out.

    True, but I’d notice that in your example, the word that your mind pulled out was “Jew” which is not in itself an ethnic slur. It probably came across as a bit racist in context but all the slip here shows is that you associate the word “Jew” with the trappings of Judaism, which is very different from associating actual racial slurs with the President of the United States.

  • http://publicslips.blogspot.co.uk John Crow

    We don’t need to be sure “nig” was the planned syllable; to me it seems very clear that that is the uttered syllable. I can quite clearly hear the closing “g”. I don’t hear a parapraxis at all really, I hear someone get halfway through the N word and then stop.

    But thank-you for a very interesting and illuminating piece, which has promoted a good discussion. Personally I don’t feel there’s a need to oppose psycho-dynamic theories of parapraxis to cognitive ones. Seems to me there’s a synthesis available. Personally I’m agnostic on the issue of whether parapraxes reveal hidden or repressed intentions. It makes perfect sense to me, but is that because I was brought up in a post-Freudian universe?

    Anyway, I was one of those blogging the incident, on my blog of parapraxes by public figures. http://publicslips.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/santorum-concedes.html

  • http://www.jeffcarney.net/blog/ Jeff Carney

    Before making the gaffe in question, Santorum had JUST been discussing Obama’s ill-fated remarks to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Namely, that after Obama won the election, he would “have more flexibility” to meet the terms of Vladimir Putin.

    That is to say, Obama was talking about being about to *negotiate* with an entity the GOP does not want to negotiate with. (They’ve never fully gotten past Reagan’s “evil empire” attitude.”)

    So it seems at least possible that Santorum was preparing to call the president a “government negotiator.”

    Further, the schwa in “negotiate” is easily fronted to an “ih” sort of sound. I hear it all the time.

  • http://losthunderlads.com Acilius

    The reaction to Mr Romney’s 2007 slip, in which he referred to then-Senator Barack Obama as Senator “Osama,” intrigued me at the time because of its contrast with the reaction to Ted Kennedy’s response to a question at the National Press Club in January 2005. Asked about Mr Obama’s electoral success in Illinois, Mr Kennedy said he thought that the question would better be put to “Osama bin Laden- uh- Osama Obama- uh- Obama.” That remark didn’t elicit more than a few friendly chuckles, since no one could plausibly argue that Mr Kennedy was willfully attacking his close political ally Mr Obama. The fuss and bother when Mr Romney made a much less elaborate speech error two years later suggested to me that many of his hearers were primed and ready to hear him make a sneaky attempt to conflate Mr Obama with the much-loathed Osama bin Laden.

    Likewise with the response to Rick Santorum’s words. Many observers are highly prepared for Mr Santorum to make racist remarks, evidently believing that the emotional life of someone of his political persuasion and affiliations must be shot through with hostility towards African Americans. As for me, I think Mr Santorum’s habit of making an exaggerated display of disfluency after a speech error, which is what he claims he was doing when he produced the syllable that sounded so much like “black” in “make [“black”? or “bleaugh”?] people’s lives better,” is so dangerous when the ground rules of communication are as the post above describes them that I find it surprising, almost bizarre, that a politician as experienced as Mr Santorum continues to engage in it. In that sense, it serves him right that he encounters controversies like these, even if the objectionable words were nowhere in his mind. As a professional politician, he should know better than to insert that sort of babble.

  • Wayne

    Upon listening to it, it sounds pretty incriminating. With an attempt to cover it making it worse.

  • http://krautblog-ulrich.blogspot.com/ Ulrich Flemming

    Here’s what I am interested in: There can be two reasons for the lack of evidence that attitudes influence speech errors: (a) The evidence is not there because it was never looked for; i.e. there were no experiments set up to find this out; and (b) the experiments were conducted, but failed to produce evidence. Reasoning based on (a) leaves me unimpressed, based in part on my own experience: I am German, and when I speak rapidly in English, a German word may slip in with the same meaning of the English word I should have used. Now, I admit that this is different from the “nig” example, but it does illustrate that past experience (read “attitude”) can account for speech errors–where does it end? Reasoning based on (b) is far more convincing.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/occupythispage jeff dillon

    wow! you actually defended Santorum at every turn, despite some of the most insightful comments. you leave yourself plenty of wiggle room. what is my opinion to the many eloquent speakers herein? yes, we often say funny things, like “hard-on” instead of “hard hat on”, nevertheless, on personal analysis, we do find personal associations. i liked the chewy cookie comment relevant. i would have trouble with words I was not well familiar with in pronunciation, such as the character in StarWars, Chewbaka? that’s enough wild associations. what Santorum is doing is almost pure evil. He is driving a psychological stake in the heart of America to try and divide the republican vote, with a plan to defeat the incumbent. he is doing this with baiting, using language carefully, not slips, and subliminal, albeit, he admits it is deliberate, advertising. all of this is meant to separate the wheat from the chafe, and bring out the voters. at the very least, he is Romney’s man to get out the vote. it always looks better if there is more than one contender in a democratic process.

  • http://www.chartimages.info Bud Wood

    Sticks and stones may break my bones and words can get me fired.

  • Kevin NYC

    nih? he was talking about Obama BEFORE he was elected, not about negotiating with the Russians.

    and “government nig***” sounds like some black guy who collects welfare, unemployment, food stamps and free abortions for his baby mommas..

    Sanctorum is pandering to an audience of old white males and a few old ladies. They think the blacks are stealing their social security. seriously.

  • Steve Morrison

    no other word starts with “nig”

    Better not let David Howard hear you say that.

  • Brian Leach

    Noel Kurtz says that no other word starts with nig, how about niggardly, which means stingy? I don’t think that was the word Senator Santorum intended to use in this context, but it does refute the assertion that no other word starts with ‘nig’.

    I used to participate in Toastmasters, where we weekly practiced impromptu speaking. I can tell you that more than once, a third word came out while I was deciding which of two words to use as I was speaking. It is very easy to do, and sometimes has quite comical consequences.

    If Senator Santorum were a racist, I am certain people would be coming out of the woodwork at this point with examples. We haven’t heard from them, let this one go.

  • Bill Deef

    Freud used a metaphor to discredit attempts to weasel out of psychological explanations of behavior by using mechanical ones. Saying that mistakes occur because of external conditions like the difficulty of processinjg language (back in the old days it was because of fatigue, distraction, a second language etc.) is like saying a burglary took place because it was dark. There are quite a few things that could happen when a place is unlit, but the question is why was it a burglary that occurred and not something else?

    Just present other errors that these mispeaking politicians make that are not motivated unconsciously, show that those errors are just as frequent and voilá, you’ve disproved Freud scientifically. In the meantime, I’ll stick with Freudian introspection and honesty, thanks.

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About Julie Sedivy

Julie Sedivy teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You.

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