11 December 2008

Gordon Brown's gaffe shows what Gail Jefferson meant by a 'sound formed error'

Yesterday, I was phoned by a BBC radio station and asked to comment on Gordon Brown’s gaffe about how he had ‘saved the world’ when he’d apparently meant to say ‘saved the banks’. As this was the first I’d heard of it, they allowed me an hour or two to have a look at it before phoning back to do the interview.

News of this high profile slip of the tongue reminded me of a fascinating paper on the ‘Poetics of Ordinary Talk’* that I’d heard Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, give at a conference in Boston in 1977. It included a discussion of what she called ‘sound formed errors’, by which she meant cases where a speaker’s choice of a ‘wrong’ word seems to be triggered by sounds in the words that came just before it.

In one of her examples, the first syllable of ‘Wednesday’ was abandoned and corrected to ‘Thursday’:

“I will be up that way Wed – uh –Thursday.”

Gail’s suggestion was that, as the mistaken initial selection of ‘Wednesday’ came just after there had been two ‘wuh’ noises in quick succession, it could have been the repetitive sounds that triggered the error.

This made me wonder whether there had been any ‘wuh’ sounds in what Gordon Brown had said just before saying “world” when he’d meant to say “banks”. So it was with considerable surprise and delight that I spotted no less than four of them in the sentence leading up to the error that's caused him so much embarrassment.

GORDON BROWN: “The first point of recapitalisation was to save banks that would otherwise have collapsed and we’ve not only saved the world – erh - saved the banks.”

Unfortunately you won’t be able to watch this on most of the clips on news websites and YouTube, as they’ve been edited to start at the point where he says “.. and we’ve not only…” - but you can see the full sentence below (with Italian sub-titles).

The fact that there were so many 'wuh' sounds before the error was a real gift to me because I could now say something in the interview that might be a bit different from the various speculations coming from other commentators since the gaffe had hit the airwaves.

I also said something else in the interview, but I can’t remember whether it was in the original Jefferson paper, had came up in the discussion after it or was something I’d noticed or been told about some time since 1977. This is the idea that ‘sound formed errors’ and ‘triggered puns’ (also featured in her paper) are more likely to happen when a speaker is tired, because that’s when the brain is most likely to take handy short cuts like selecting words that sound like others nearby.

This led me to suggest that Gordon Brown’s error might have happened because he was more tired than usual, a comment I now regret – as it enabled the interviewer to get away from what I thought was quite an interesting subject and go down the track they’d presumably been hoping their ‘expert’ would take them along in the first place.

“So can we conclude from this” asked the interviewer, “that the stresses of the job are getting too much for him?”

Er, no. I just said that he might have been tired.

But I do think it qualifies as a prime example of exactly what Gail meant by ‘sound formed errors’ – and how they can sometimes get you into trouble you could have well done without.

(* Gail Jefferson, ‘On the Poetics of Ordinary Talk’, Text and Performance Quarterly, 1996, 16(1), 1-61 - you can download the paper by clicking here or on the title above).).



Ales Veselka said...

What about this explanation.

Our brain work as memory-prediction machine; constantly search for matching incoming information with stored memory.

So when you start saying "save the ...." memory say "hey, i have this sentence already" and provide rest - "save the world" -, and release energy for something else.
How many times we heard throughout our lifes "save the world"? Milion times! In stories, history, movies ...
But how many times we heard "save the banks"?

I believe, rather, the first words in the sentence "save the ..." triggered the "save the world" as the only "w" is too short in this example ...

What do you think?

Ales Veselka

Max Atkinson said...

Ales - I think your suggestion is an interesting and plausible explanation. But you seem to be saying that there was only one 'w', in which case my point would have been a lot weaker. The fact that there were four 'w' sounds in quick succession during the sentence leading to the gaffe makes it look very like the kinds of examples discussed in Jefferson's research.