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Speech Errors And Linguistic Competence Notes

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Olivia Alter


What (if anything) can performance errors tell us about linguistic competence?
In 1901 Freud claimed that performance errors (more commonly known as slips of the tongue) reveal an individual's repressed thoughts, in his attempt to derive a general model of the mind from patterns of repression amongst his patients. Since then, psycholinguists have used analyses of such errors in order to research not the conscious or subconscious intentions behind our utterances, but how we represent those utterances in our minds, at an abstract phonological level, separate from their phonetic realisation, or articulation. They claim it is necessary to begin from an examination of errors because a model of linguistic performance must account for their occurrence, and since they do not appear to be random, but rather highly constrained and regular in their incidence, they can explain certain things about linguistic competence, which is also needed before modelling can take place. Hypotheses have thus been generated, whereby errors provide evidence for smaller phonological units which combine to create word forms, for the organisation of lexical items in a kind of mental dictionary, or for the reality of phonological rules and linguistic components in general. But the errors themselves may actually limit the confirmation of such hypotheses, and therefore leave us just as unaware of the characteristics of linguistic competence as if we had not used them for evidence. Slips of the tongue are characterised as unintentional departures from what an individual means to say. They can include adding, omitting, moving or substituting parts of speech, whether these are single phonemes, syllables, words, or phrases. Thus there is already the suggestion of an underlying phonological structure, since there are clearly discrete units of language at the level of performance. This is supported by the errors which constitute the majority of the collected data being known as segmental substitutions, involving a single unit about the size of a phoneme, seen in the following examples, where the intended, or target utterance is followed by the articulated, mistaken utterance: 1) You missed my history lecture  you hissed my mystery lecture (spoonerism) 2) Go and call Mandy  go and call Candy (perseveration) 3) Also share  alsho share (anticipation) 4) Try and take  tie and take (elision)

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