166The study of language
together smoothly. (Well, some days are just worse than others, perhaps.)
Minor production difficulties of this sort have been investigated as possible
clues to the way our linguistic knowledge may be organized within the
There is, for example, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon in which you
feel that some word is just eluding you, that you know the word, but it just
won't come to the surface. Studies of this phenomenon have shown that
speakers generally have an accurate phonological outline of the word, can
get the initial sound correct and mostly know the number of syllables in the
word. This experience also mainly occurs with uncommon terms or names. It
suggests that our'word-storage' may be partially organized on the basis of
some phonological information and that some words in that `store' are more
easily retrieved than others. When we make mistakes in this retrieval
process, there are often strong phonological similarities between the target
word and the mistake. For example, speakers producedsecant, sextetand
sexton,when asked to name a particular type of navigational instrument
(sextant).Mistakes of this type are sometimes referred to as Malapropisms,
after a character called Mrs. Malaprop in a play by Sheridan who consistent-
ly produced'near-misses' for words, with great comic effect. The comic use
of this type of mistake can still be found, as when the television character
Archie Bunker is heard to sayWe need a few laughs to break up the
A similar type of speech error is commonly described as a slip-of-the-
tongue, which often results in tangled expressions such as along shory stort
(for `make a long story short') andthe thine sing(for `the sign thing') or word
reversals, as inuse the door to open the keyanda fifty-pound dog of bag food.
This type of slip is also known as a Spoonerism, after the Rev. William A.
Spooner, an Anglican clergyman at Oxford University, who was renowned
for his tongue-slips. Most of the slips attributed to him involve the inter-
change of two initial sounds, as when he addressed a rural group asNoble
tons of soil,or described God as a shoving leopard to his flock,or in this com-
plaint to a student who had been absent from classes: Youhave hissed all my
mystery lectures.Using this type of interchange of forms for comic effect,
Oscar Wilde switched the wordsworkanddrinkto produce the memorable
expressionWork is the curse of the drinking classes.
Most everyday `tips of the slung', however, are not as entertaining. They
are often simply the result of a sound being carried over from one word to
the next, as inblack booxes(for `black boxes') or a sound used in one word in
anticipation of its occurrence in the next word, as innoman numeral(for
Language and the brain167
`roman numeral'),a tup of tea (`cup')orthe most highly played payer(`paid
player'). The last example is close to the reversal type of slip, illustrated by
shu Hots,which may not make youheel fetterif you're suffering from astick
neffor it's always better to loopbefore you leak.The last two examples
involve the interchange of word-final sounds and are much less common
than the word-initial slips.
It has been argued that slips of this type are not random, that they never
produce a phonologically unacceptable sequence, and that they indicate the
existence of different stages in the articulation of linguistic expressions.
Although the slips are mostly treated as errors of articulation, it has been
suggested that they may result from `slips of the brain' as it tries to organize
One other type of slip, less commonly documented, may provide some
clues to how the brain tries to make sense of the auditory signal it receives.
These have been called slips-of-the-ear and can result, for example, in our
hearinggreat ape,and wondering why someone should be looking for one in
his office. (The speaker actually said `grey tape'.) A similar type of misun-
derstanding seems to be behind the child's report that, in Sunday school,
everyone was singing about a bear called Gladly who was cross-eyed. The
source of this slip turned out to be a line from a religious song which went
Gladly the cross I'd bear.
Some of these humorous examples of slips may give us a clue to the nor-
mal workings of the human brain as it copes with language. However, some
problems with language production and comprehension are the result of
much more serious disorders in brain function.
If you have experienced any of those `slips' on occasion, then you will have
some hint of the types of experience which some people live with constantly.
These people suffer from different types of language disorders, generally
described as aphasia. Aphasia is defined as an impairment of language
function due to localized cerebral (i.e. brain) damage which leads to diffi-
culty in understanding and/or producing linguistic forms.The most common
cause of aphasia is a stroke, though traumatic head injuries suffered through
violence or accidents may have similar effects. It is often the case that some-
one who is aphasic has interrelated language disorders, in that difficulties in
understanding can lead to difficulties in production. Consequently, the clas-
sification of types of aphasia is normally based on the primary symptoms of
an aphasic who is having difficulties with language.