11.09.2007

what's in a whole nother error?

so, in my last post, i discussed the two definitions of error: grammatical or usage error ('spicket' for 'spigot') and technical speech errors ('cattleships and bruisers' for 'battleships and cruisers'). i'd like to address another, somewhat related, error issue that sprung from my thesis project on typos.

speech errors follow very predictable patterns. they are totally constrained by certain rules such as 'vowels only slip with vowels' and 'speech errors only produce valid syllables.' that is, 'bad' would never slip and become 'abd' because this involves a consonant/vowel swap and produces a sound combination, 'bd,' that doesn't occur in english.

clearly, typos don't obey these rules. the common typo the-->hte is a good example. 'ht' is not a valid word beginning, and yet this typo occurs all the time. most of the typos that violate the rules of speech errors have pretty clear motivations. 'hte' involves switching two adjacent letters. 'tghis' involves accidentally hitting a key next to the intended one. but in my thesis, i found a lot of typos that seem unmotivated by physical factors of the keyboard. for instance, someone substituted a 'b' for a 'p' and one typed 'soom bo-' when they meant to type 'some books.'

similarity of units has always been acknowledged as a factor in speech errors. each speech sound has a set of features (place of articulation in the mouth, manner of articulation, and whether or not the vocal chords are vibrating), and the more features two sounds share, the more likely they are to slip with one another. 'b' for 'p' makes sense as a speech error because the two sounds share every feature except voicing. but as a typo, it's hard to understand because the two letters are so far apart on the keyboard.

so it seems that there are some typos that obey the speech error constraints and are based on phonetic similarity. but some are based only on motoric or articulatory similarity. this has a couple of implications, i believe.

first, it seems to indicate that we do use inner speech when we type. the sounds of language play a role in the way we plan our typing, which doesn't involve sound in any other way. second, it means that we're able to separate articulatory features from phonetic features. this makes the comparison to speech kind of tricky, because in speech, the notions of articulatory and phonological similarity are the same. that is, phonological similarity is based on the physical characteristics of a particular medium--the human mouth we all share. it's as much an historical accident as they layout of the keyboard!

AND i have a completely unfounded theory! another thing happens in speech because of articulatory factors: transformations in quick speech. these are things like 'did you eat?' becoming 'jeet?' linguists don't consider these errors, in part because they're very predictable. so what if these kinds of abbreviations--which, remember, occur because of fast articulation--were analogous to articulatory errors (those caused by the layout of the keyboard) in typing? these kind of errors are, almost certainly, more common in fast typing and, if collapses aren't counted as errors, typing errors vastly outnumber speech errors. i'm not saying the numbers shold match perfectly, but the difference in frequency i found was really huge, and when i compared speech errors only to speech-error like typos, the numbers were quite similar. (sorry i'm being too lazy to actually haul out my thesis and give you the exact numbers. i'll send you a copy if you want one.)

i think the only real difference between articlatory laziness in speech and typing errors is that the former is completely expected. it's only in recent years that typing has become a real-time communications medium, and i would guess that we'll start to see more of these typos going uncorrected. i've certainly noticed that i tend to not correct them in informal im conversations, especially if they're fairly predictable and don't disrupt interpretation, like how-->hwo.

it's also interesting to note that almost all the definitions of error that we've encountered involve accidental violation of the speaker's intention. and these articulatory foibles certainly fit that bill. few people would think they meant to say 'jew eat?' or 'jeet?' rather than 'did you eat?' but we all do it the same way we all occasionally, predictably type 'teh.'

2 comments:

joe said...

I find it interesting that in trying to transmit meaning through text there can be the typo as error and the typo as intentionality when used playfully. The "teh" through its prominence in real time textual communication starts to become distinct from the "the" the more it appears as error. More than merely a mispelling, it finally becomes intentional and mistaken.

Cristi said...

absolutely! similarly, 'gonna' is used in different contexts than 'going to.' you'd never say 'i'm gonna the store.'

but that kind of change isn't considered erroneous because it's predictable. odd.

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