December 03, 2006

You're a canned mine

My philosopher partner Barbara has just returned to California after spending November at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. A month in the Greenwich Mean Time zone, soaking up philosophy at the university's first-rate Arché research center, has afflicted her with first-rate jet lag. She dealt with the insomnia this morning by getting up before dawn to work at a writing task. But after a couple of hours a headache and a slight feeling of nausea convinced her she should go back to bed for a while, perhaps with a cup of tea. I said I'd bring the tea up to her, and as she headed for the stairs she expressed her gratitude, speaking slowly and sincerely: "You're a canned mine."

For a few moments we froze, staring at each other in utter disbelief, as if she had been possessed by an evil spirit and it had just spoken in her voice. But we both know a bit about psycholinguistics, and we soon realized what had happened. The vowel nuclei in the last two syllables had been interchanged in a speech production error. The [ai] of kind, the [æ] of man. It convinced us both she really did need to lie down for a while.

Spectacular speech errors of this sort are quite common, and not only in the speech of people currently located eight time zones away from where their biological clock has been set. The details of such errors have often been used by phonologists as evidence for phonological structure. After all, if you can accidentally switch the nuclei of two adjacent syllables when you're very tired, one obvious explanation would be that phonology is not a kind of fiction made up in the process of doing linguistic analysis; rather, there really are syllables, they really have nuclei, and your speech production mechanisms actually operate in a way that, in effect, makes reference to these units.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 3, 2006 11:59 AM