25 November 2010

Sarah Palin's North Korean slip of the tongue: what we heard and what we'll make of it

For American politicians, talking about North Korea seems to be a bit of a minefield.

When Hillary Clinton threatened North Korea with "consequences" for its misconduct, she prefaced her dire warning with a large number of 'pre-delicate hitches' (HERE).

Now we have Sarah Palin telling us that she wants to "stand by our North Korean allies".

As she's also trying to convince her fellow Americans that she's a credible presidential candidate, it's hardly surprising that her gaffe was not only noticed, but has also become a big news story around the world.

But however much her opponents may be hoping that it will damage her reputation, the most likely explanation of it is that it was a rather common type of 'slip of the tongue' - i.e. what the late Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, described as a 'category-formed' error (HERE)

Sound-formed errors
Two years ago, a similar gaffe from Gordon Brown attracted widespread media attention when he claimed to have saved the world.

However, as I pointed out at the time, there were four 'w' sounds in the sentence that ended with "world", which he quickly corrected to 'banks' (video and comments HERE). In other words, it looked like a fairly typical example of what Jefferson had described as a 'sound-formed' error, namely one that was triggered by a repeated sound in the words spoken just before the 'wrong' one came out.

Category-formed errors
A similar type of conversational 'error' described by Jefferson was what she called the 'category-formed' error. This is when the word that comes out means something that's related to the one intended - a common example of which involves selecting a word that means the exact opposite of what we meant, e.g. right instead of left, hot instead of cold, black instead of white, etc.

Viewed in these terms, Palin's use of North for South therefore sounded like a fairly typical example of a 'category-formed' error.

Freudian slips or slips of the tongue?
The trouble is, of course, that media commentators (and other experts) love to find deeper meaning in such errors, regardless of how they were formed. As Jefferson pointed out in her original paper, many alleged 'Freudian slips' turn out to be 'sound-formed' or 'category-formed' errors.

But, as I discovered when doing a radio interview on Gordon Brown's 'saving the world' gaffe, the media isn't very interested in a such mundane explanation of slips of the tongue when there are alternative that are 'deeper', more sensational or more damaging.

Once it's out, it's anyone's
In case opponents of Mrs Palin think that I'm trying to offer her a neat way of getting off this particular hook, I should mention that there is also some encouraging news for them from one of the other founders of conversation analysis, the late Harvey Sacks - who used to say about talk: "Once it's out, it's anyone's".

He didn't just mean that you can't 'un-say' words after they've already been said, but that they're available for anyone to analyse and interpret in whatever way they like. And that is precisely what the media is doing in this particular case.

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