Scientists Want Your Slips of the Tongue

By Elizabeth Preston | August 7, 2015 9:32 am

Facepalm

You know that feeling when you’re halfway through a sentence and can’t think of the next word you need? It’s a word you know, but you can’t quite bring it to mind. There’s a name for that phenomenon…what is it, again?

Oh right, the “tip of the tongue.”

Everyday failures in our speech, like forgetting a word or saying the wrong one, are great fodder for scientists who want to understand language. But they’re hard to study in the lab, because you can’t force someone to make a mistake. Most of the time, we speak just fine.

So University of Kansas psychologist Michael Vitevitch has created an online tool for anyone, anytime, to record their speech errors. It’s like an ongoing goof diary for the public. And he hopes that if enough people use it, the data collected will be useful to the researchers who want to learn more about our minds.

“Most things break at their weak points,” Vitevitch says, “and the systems involved in language processing are no different.” The errors we make in speaking reveal where the weakest links are in the process of turning thoughts into sounds. For example, one of those weak points is getting from the meaning of a word to the word itself—when we can’t make the leap, we have a tip-of-the-tongue problem.

This is the most fascinating type of error to Vitevitch. “You know a word and have used it in the past, but now that you need it, it stays just out of reach,” he says. These errors “are very telling about how faulty and transient our memory can be.” But they aren’t the only mistakes his new online tool will track.

The tool is called SpEDi, for “Speech Error Diary.” It collects three categories of mistakes: words that are misspoken, words that are misheard, and words on the tip of your tongue. Vitevitch describes how SpEDi works in Frontiers of Science.

New visitors to the SpEDi website will be prompted to register. They’ll create a profile that includes details like their education level and what languages they speak. (Errors by multilingual people are especially interesting, Vitevitch says. Rather than making the leap from one word-idea to one word-form, they have to choose between multiple forms.) Then, anytime users make one of these errors—or hear someone else screw up—they can record it.

whathappened

They’ll be prompted to describe the error in detail. There’s more than one way to misspeak, of course. There’s the malapropism, where you use a word that sounds similar to the one you want but has a totally different meaning (as in the recent headline about the amphibious pitcher). There’s swapping sounds in adjacent words (if you swap the first letters, it’s a spoonerism, named for a certain Reverend Spooner who allegedly made a lot of them). There’s blending two words into one.

If you mishear the lyrics of a song, it’s a mondegreen.* There are whole websites devoted to funny examples of these, but SpEDi is also interested in the non-musical (and unfunny) misheard words. And if you have a tip-of-the-tongue problem, the website will ask for the details of the missing word—even if you haven’t found it yet.

missingword

The website also gently asks if you’re sure this word exists. On a seven-point scale, “How certain are you that you will be able to recall this word?” Finally, a space for additional notes lets you record “that the error occurred in a noisy environment,” Vitevitch notes in his paper, or “that an alcoholic beverage had been consumed shortly before the error was made.”

Vitevitch is spreading the word about SpEDi on social media and to other language researchers. Anyone who registers for the site can download all the raw data it’s gathered so far, and use that data for their own research if they want. By opening up the diary to everyone, and leaving it open indefinitely, Vitevitch hopes to build a research tool that’s truly useful.

“I hope people will see that they don’t need to have a PhD to be involved in and contribute to science,” Vitevitch says. For this particular experiment, they only need to be people who have made a mistake. And we all make mistakes.

“Back in college I called my current girlfriend the name of my previous girlfriend,” Vitevitch recalls. “You only make that error once.”

 

*Was anyone else disappointed to learn that in “Drunk in Love,” Beyoncé sings Cigars on ice, cigars on ice, and not Some guys are nice?

Image: top by Ross Burton (via Flickr); others from spedi.ku.edu

Michael S. Vitevitch (2015). Speech error and tip-of-the-tongue diary for mobile devices Frontiers in Psychology : 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01190

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  • ejhaskins

    The main reason for my goofs up is when I am thinking of two things at once, and the word for what I was looking at comes out instead of the word I was ‘thinking’ to say.
    Then there is the really annoying thing when you are seeking a word for what you are thinking — only to realise that there is NO English word for it :-( Sometimes Lewis Carroll comes to the rescue :-)

  • Suzanne

    I am finding lately that I am having way too many tip of the tongue events. It’s reminding me of going to a speech assessment visit with my father after he’d had a stroke (because they were doing the assessment in English and my father was a french somewhat bilingual, I didn’t want the results skewed because of language). Often my father would say it was on the tip of his tongue: he couldn’t recall the word in English but he’d tell me in French. When it happens to me now, it’s like my brain decides it won’t discuss that topic at all! No links, no association, no tricks work. I just have to drop it. I don’t want to have these at all because it’s quite alarming.

  • Adrian Morgan

    At the beginning of the article I was quite interested, but the more I read, the more sceptical I became. The process of submitting an error sounds unnecessarily burdensome, and on what planet are four-fifths of “tip of the tongue” words the names of people, places, things, movies and books? Words I’ve struggled to remember in the past include “sentimental”, “hyperbole”, and others that can often be found with a thesaurus.

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Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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