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The Word

The beast within

Wildness. We go outdoors, to the mountains or the ocean, to encounter the untamed and untameable. But this quality can be found closer to home, too -- our spoken sentences are full of wildness, right under the threshold of our attention.

I'm talking, of course, about verbal blunders.

By "verbal blunders," I mean one of two things. They can be slips of the tongue -- any moment where a speaker gets sounds out of order or selects the wrong word. The other day, my wife said "the fook I --" (stopping herself on the way) instead of "the food I cook." The same week a colleague pronounced her affairs to be in a "stad sate." Speech errors like these are unintentional accidents; linguists figure that a person makes about one or two of them every 1,000 words.

A verbal blunder can also be what's known as a "speech disfluency": "uh" and "um," repeated sounds and words, fragments of words, and sentence repairs, all of which occur when you're planning what to say next or realize you want to say something else. This isn't the same thing as stuttering, a disorder with neurological roots. I often speak disfluently, and so do we all: 5 to 8 percent of the words we say are somehow disfluent. So if American men and women say about 16,000 words a day (as a recent paper in Science calculated -- and no, women apparently don't talk more than men) that makes for some 800 to 1,280 disfluencies daily.

It's typical to think of verbal blunders as embarrassing slip-ups that we should avoid. But I've just written a whole book about verbal blunders, and I find them fascinating. Why? Because they're signs of the wild. Not in the sense of rough or savage, but because they're pure and untameable. They provide a window into what humans really are: biological organisms who live in complex groups and have really amazing brains. Blunders of the verbal sort may seem like violations of the order of language, but in fact they're spontaneous eruptions of the qualities that gave us this order in the first place.

Verbal blunders are uniquely human: If other species don't have language like humans do, then only we make verbal blunders. There's some evidence that the bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha, who are part of a language program at Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, occasionally make errors in selecting the visual symbols with which they communicate, but these aren't really slips. And though some zebra finches sometimes stutter, these aren't disfluencies in the same sense as the ones humans produce, because the phrases of their songs aren't as long or varied as human speech.

Verbal blunders are also universal -- they occur in every language, both spoken and signed. Every human language provides its speakers with a way to signal some delay, either with a filler word, a pause, or a repeated word. Slips of the tongue in a particular language will follow the sound patterns and word structures of that language; a malapropism or a spoonerism in English will always sound like English, not Cherokee.

Though we might make 7 to 22 slips of the tongue a day, we typically only notice about one a week, and the majority of disfluencies don't even register to our ears. This suggests that we're evolved to perceive a message despite any "noise" in an utterance, and that we filter out most distractions automatically. So noticing someone's "uhs" and "ums" says as much about your filter as about the speaker's style.

Instead of sitting in judgment over blunders, linguists and psychologists use them as tools to pry language open. Slips of the tongue are useful in this way because they possess a surprising amount of order -- for instance, accidental word blends such as "behortment" (which mixes "behavior" and "deportment") will always have the same number of syllables and stress patterns as the original two words. Such patterns suggest, among other things, that words exist as skeletons into which sounds are slotted. Slips of the tongue were the original way linguists came to understand this, before experiments and instruments confirmed it.

Not all interpretations of verbal wildness hold up over time. Sigmund Freud listened to verbal blunders and heard people losing control of their unconscious desires, but contemporary psycholinguists now think that so-called Freudian slips -- despite their hold on the popular imagination -- were fashionable interpretations after the fact, not adequate explanations of why slips happened. And there's never been enough evidence to suggest that slips are rooted in something about the speaker rather than in the act of speaking itself.

Though slips of the tongue and speech disfluencies have different causes, I put them together because of their wildness -- both disrupt the way we want to present ourselves. That's why people either laugh at verbal blunders or try (in the case of disfluencies) to eradicate them. But I like what Elizabeth Zwicky, who grew up with linguists for parents, said about paying attention to verbal blunders. Not only are you always going to be amused wherever you go, but you also become less stressed out by them. It's like being a birdwatcher. "Birdwatchers," she said, "have a richer experience of birds than anybody else."

Michael Erard lives in Austin, Texas, and is the author of "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean" (Pantheon). Contact him at Jan Freeman is on vacation this week.