Optical illusions are fascinating, because we all, at some level, think that seeing is believing, and are amazed to find in how many ways our eyes can be fooled. They are not just amusements, however; in the past few decades, neurological researchers have used the mistaken impressions such illusions give us to look deeply into the parts of our brains that process visual data. The neuronal machinery that makes the errors thereby reveals what it is silently doing when it is doing its usual error-free processing. Similarly, over the past few decades, speech errors have been harnessed to help understand the almost infinitely complex process it takes to make a sentence. That is one of the fascinating points in _Um... : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean_ (Pantheon) by Michael Erard. Erard, who has an academic background in linguistics and English, is a freelance writer who has looked into what you might think of as a pretty limited field even for professor types. People say "um" a lot, and they mix up their word pronunciations and sentence structure. We generally ignore such flaws, no matter how universal they may be, and in fact we may be programmed to ignore them. Still, if they are universal, they must be mean something. Erard has wandered all over to visit researchers who are each looking deeply into a specific area of linguistic mistakes and bringing forth a new understanding of how language works. The result is an entertaining book that can only make readers appreciate how complicated spoken language is, and admire how it usually goes fluently.
What do all these "ums" mean? Not anxiety. One of the earliest products of "disfluency research" was that the number of filler words has no correlation with the level of anxiety. It might be that "um" isn't an error, but a means that a speaker has of signaling a listener that a delay is coming, perhaps a hunt for an important word or concept, and in this way the speaker is inviting the listener to keep up with not only the stream of thought but the process of thinking. If "um" plays a linguistic role, then perhaps it is not really an error, and Erard documents that there was no campaign to eliminate "um" until the early twentieth century. The book's subtitle hints that there is more to it than just "um", and there is much more, starting with an amusing portrait of the 19th-century Oxford don Rev. William Archibald Spooner who was famous for transposing word sounds. "You have tasted a worm", he is supposed to have said, when he wished to say, "You have wasted a term." Many of his supposed sayings he didn't say at all, and many of his colleagues said they never heard any. People have made vast lists of spoonerisms (as they have of every other sort of verbal error), and the lists reflect that something orderly is going on even in such a verbal pratfall. In verbal slips, we are more likely to fluff the initial sound, for instance, and the initial syllable of a word, and the syllable that gets the emphasis. If we misspeak and insert a wrong word, it is not likely to be a nonsense word, and we almost always insert a noun for a noun, a verb for a verb, and so on. Freudian slips are covered here, but researchers are demonstrating that these mistakes are a linguistic, rather than a neurotic, manifestation.
Erard covers a pleasing range of language gaffs, and part of the appeal of the book is that everyone will recognize the errors he describes. Erard covers the career of Kermit Schaefer, who did not invent the term "blooper", but who collected enough funny radio and television mistakes to became the "King of Bloopers", and to make a fortune on how much we enjoy the amusing verbal mistakes of people who use language professionally. He tells of the research of Stanford's Arnold Zwicky on "eggcorns", a term which unites "egg" and "corn" for a malapropism for "acorn". Like "very close veins" for "varicose veins", these are slips of the tongue that have become ossified so that the individual using the term thinks it is correct. In Shanghai, Erard visits the company Saybot which makes software to help Chinese keep from mangling English. An enjoyable penultimate chapter is wickedly called "President Blunder", but is actually pretty gentle on the famous gaffes of George W. Bush. No one knows, for instance, if the president who is famous for such sayings as "You're working hard to keep food on your family" actually makes more verbal errors than any of his predecessors, or more than other people in general. Erard points out that it is fundamentally wrong to criticize "how smart or competent or moral a person is because he or she doesn't speak like you do" but on the other hand it is wrong to praise the authenticity of error-prone speech when the excellence of error-free speech is an ideal (if unattainable) goal. The surprise is that if we magically managed to eliminate all our errors of speaking, we would lose this window into the mysterious inner workings of our capacity for language.