Slip of the Tongue: Borrowing from downstream

Speech errors (slips of the tongue) often ‘borrow’ from language in the mind that is downstream of the target language. Here is a good example from Theresa May at PMQs.

The slip occurs in line 02 where May says ‘working peo-’ instead of ‘austerity’. The word ‘people’ is cut short as May realises her error and seeks to repair it, which she does in line 03.

Theresa May
01 can I say to (.) the right honourable gentleman
02 indeed after a decade of working peo-
03 a decade of austerity
04 people need to know
05 that their hard work has paid off
...

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This error would be classified as ‘word substitution’ where the wrong word (a two-word noun phrase in this case) is selected instead of the target word ‘austerity’. We might wonder why ‘working people’ was substituted for ‘austerity’ and the subsequent lines (04 & 05) reveal why this might be the case. Both the word ‘people’ and ‘work’ appear in these lines which suggests that the mind looks ahead when planning speech. In this case, presumably these words were already in mind waiting to be articulated. But due to the pressures of spontaneous speech, they have been articulated too early.

It is interesting how the speaker maintains the grammaticality of the phrase by adding the ‘ing’ morpheme to ‘work’ to show it is acting as adjective modifier to ‘people’.

  • Classification: Word substitution

Speech errors are a normal part of spoken delivery and do not normally indicate anything untoward in the delivery.


PMQs, The House of Commons, 24th October 2018 (about 12:07pm)

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