what's in an error?

seb's recent post raises several interesting questions. the one that currently interests me most is: what is the definition of a speech error?

for most of the cognitive and linguistic literature on speech errors, it's something like 'an utterance that doesn't correspond to the utterance the speaker intended to produce.' people that use this definition are generally studying instances like "cattleships and bruisers" being produced when "battleships and cruisers" was intended. these are known as errors of performance. what this definition (sometimes explicitly) excludes are errors of competence. these are substitutions like "spicket" for "spigot." for most linguists, if you think that word is "spicket," intend to say it that way, and execute it properly, you haven't made an error.

or have you? clearly, for grammarians, using the word "spicket" where better-educated speakers would use "spigot" is an error. it's a violation of, as seb says, "the way things are" in the language at this point in time.

what's the disconnect here? grammarians are talking about the Language as it is recorded in dictionaries and linguists are talking about the intention a speaker has to make a particular utterance without regard to its correctness in the Language as a whole. this seems to be Saussure's parole and langue distinction in action. langue was his term for the language as a whole unified entity, whereas parole was the individual utterance spoken at a particular moment in an absolutely unique context.

the two domains are so distinct that they even have completely different ways of defining what an error is. yet it strikes me as part of the mystery of language that langue is built completely from parole. and, in turn, parole is built on langue; we each learn how to form utterances by taking in a ton of language, riddled with error though they may be.

what interests me further is this: the two constructions stand in very different relations to the speaking subject. he's sort of surrounded by langue while in control of parole. but both definitions of error have to do with the speakers' intention. what does this mean for educational policy? what does it mean for humanity? stay tuned?


Ty said...


I am a private researcher located in Los Angeles. Over the summer I came across a discovery that I am trying to define professionally and scientifically as valid or invalid. The project identifies a massive level of similarity in words that start with the same letter. More specifically, the meaning, or thought behind most all words that start with the same letter are identical. To my surprise, there is even a relationship between the letters in the word that repeatedly define the contextual meaning of the word. This concept can be easily dismissed unless you try it yourself based on my first draft of the code below. I understand that this may sound out there, but I found some undeniable truth just by checking and rechecking against the common thesaurus and typing words against the code. I am in hopes that you will be open to the possibility of such structure behind language because like the discovery of genetics, I feel this language code can open a world of possibilities in artificial intelligence, computational linguistics and semiotics. I strongly feel that this could be the foundation of something, if you give it a chance to resonate. One point of reference that I hope adds some credibility is that my discovery is not unique, however, it is uniquely more perfected than any previous attempt.

The language code:

A = Object, B = Action, C = Seen, D = Choice, E = Existing, F = Connection, G = Become,
H = Reality, I = Interpret, J = Belief, K = Feeling, L = Limit, M = Compare, N = Closeness,
O = Balance, P = Opposing, Q = Center, R = Condition, S = Impression, T = Reflect,
U = Presence, V = Relationship, W = Possibility, X = Out, Y = Measure, Z = Area

To use it, type any word. Most words that start with the letter above will relate to the thought or meaning associated with that letter. Below are some examples from simplest to complex. The first word in each code group is the main thought behind the word, the rest of the code completes the word's core meaning or thought. Sentences also apply. This is my first draft so not all words are final, for example, I wrote "D = Choice" but it may turn out through later research "D = Choose" or both since they are so similar. If you find any truth to this subliminal code behind the english language, please see the original blog entry as an online reference to accompany this email. If you can, please let me know if you flat out cannot help me validate this experiment nor point me in the right direction to someone who can help me invalidate my results through scientific testing. Here are the examples.

Reality Balance Presence Impression Existing

Reality Balance Compare Existing

Reality Existing Object Condition Reflect

Compare Object Closeness

Become Balance Choice

Impression Balance Presence Limit

Possibility Object Reflect Existing Condition

Seen Object Condition

Compare Balance Closeness Existing Measure

Condition Balance Object Impression Reflect

Limit Balance Relationship Existing

Connection Object Compare Interpret Limit Measure

Impression Existing Out

Seen Condition Interpret Compare Existing

Belief Presence Impression Reflect Interpret Seen Existing

Existing Object Condition Reflect Reality

Opposing Limit Object Closeness Existing Reflect

Impression Presence Closeness

Reality Object Opposing Opposing Measure

Become Balance Balance Choice

Action Object Choice.

Closeness Existing Become Object Reflect Interpret Relationship Existing

Opposing Balance Impression Interpret Reflect Interpret Relationship Existing

a god.
Object Become Balance Choice

the devil.
Choice Existing Relationship Interpret Limit

Become Limit Object Choice

Choice Existing Feeling Interpret Closeness Existing

The boy is sad.
Reflect Reality Existing | Action Balance Measure | Interpret Impression | Impression Object Choice.

Thank you for your time,

Ty Graham

Blog reference:

Cristi said...

Hi Ty,

Thanks so much for your comment. This is a really interesting idea, and a project that has been attempted for centuries. I specifically remember reading about a similar medieval idea--if I can find the reference, I'll email it to you.

Unfortunately, I don't really believe it's scientifically valid--that is, supportable or disprovable by experimentation. I'll try to explain why I think this, though I'm not an expert by any stretch. I'd encourage you (and all language theorists) to keep farming your ideas around.

The first thing that strikes me is that many of your definitional terms aren't well-defined themselves. 'Reality,' for instance, is a term that philosophers have been scrutinizing forever. It's possible to talk accurately about reality in a certain domain ('Did you see that on TV or in reality?), but as a context-less term, it's next to meaningless. I also noticed, interestingly, that a few of these terms are used by Derrida when he tries to describe the overall action of language. 'Limits,' 'opposing,' 'center,' and 'interpret' are all features of ALL language, meaning ALL signification. That they could be related to one word or letter more than another seems absurd.

Beyond that, the idea of 'associated' or 'related' concepts isn't all that well understood, and I'd be skeptical if any attempted definition held up for use in an experiment. One of my favorite philosophers, WVO Quine, argued that even common terms like 'meaning' aren't well enough defined to be used scientifically.

As for the feeling of 'truth' you get from this system, I believe that is real. I bet it's akin to the way a lot of ESP is thought to work. You want things to fit and make sense, so they do. "You knew someone once, and they left, and you've had mixed feelings about that." Predictions like this are vague and likely to be true for anyone, but they can feel very accurate if you already have a person or incident in mind. Or, in a not-quite-perfect analogy, but as my dad says, "a broken clock is right twice a day."

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