Speech Production Processes

We tend to take the skills involved in speech production for granted. Even young children are usually adept at talking fairly sensibly and grammatically. However, speech is actually a complex activity involving various skills. These include the ability to think of what one wants to say, to select the appropriate words to express it, to organise those words grammatically, and to turn the sentences one wants to say into actual speech.

Speakers use prosodic cues in their speech. These cues include rhythm, stress, and intonation, and make it easier for listeners to understand what they are trying to say (see Chapter 12).

Allbritton, McKoon, and Ratcliff (1996) studied the extent to which speakers provide prosodic cues. The participants read short passages containing ambiguous sentences that were disambiguated by the passage context. For example, the sentence "So, for lunch today he is having either pork or chicken and fries" can mean "Either he is having pork alone, or else he is having chicken and fries", or "He is having either pork or chicken, and he is definitely having fries". Very few of the speakers (even trained actors and broadcasters) consistently produced prosodic cues. However, we should not conclude that prosodic cues are rarely used in the real world. Lea (1973) analysed hundreds of naturally occurring spoken sentences, and found that syntactic boundaries (e.g., ends of sentences) were generally signalled by prosodic cues.

A consideration of hesitations and pauses in speech production suggests that speech is planned in phrases or clauses. Pauses in spontaneous speech occur more often at grammatical junctures (e.g., the ends of phrases) than anywhere else. Boomer (1965) found that such pauses last longer on average than those at other locations (1.03 seconds vs. 0.75 seconds, respectively). Pauses coinciding with phrase boundaries tend to be filled with sounds such as "um", "er", or "ah", whereas those occurring within a phrase tend to be silent (Maclay & Osgood, 1959). A major reason for these longish pauses at the end of phrases or clauses is probably to permit forward planning of the next utterance.

Speech errors

It is hard to identify the processes involved in speech production, partly because they normally occur so rapidly (we produce two or three words per second on average). Many researchers have tried to discover how people normally produce fluent speech by focusing on the errors in spoken language. As Dell (1986, p. 284) pointed out, "The inner workings of a highly complex system are often revealed by the way in which the system breaks down."

There are various collections of speech errors (e.g., Garrett, 1975; Stemberger, 1982). The errors in these collections consist of those personally heard by the researchers concerned. This procedure poses some problems. For example, some kinds of error are more readily detectable than others. Thus, we should be sceptical about percentage figures for the different kinds of speech errors. It is less clear that there are any major problems with the main categories of speech errors that have been identified. The existence of some types of speech errors has been confirmed by experimentation in which errors have been created under laboratory conditions (see Dell, 1986).

Several forms of speech error involve problems with selecting the correct word (lexical selection). A simple kind of lexical selection error is semantic substitution (the correct word is replaced by a word of similar meaning, e.g., "Where is my tennis bat?" instead of "Where is my tennis racquet?"). In 99% of cases, the substituted word is of the same form class as the correct word (e.g., nouns substitute for nouns). Verbs are much less likely than nouns, adjectives, or adverbs to undergo semantic substitution (Hotopf, 1980).

Blending is another kind of lexical selection error (e.g., "The sky is shining" instead of "The sky is blue" or "The sun is shining"). A further kind of lexical selection error is the word-exchange error, in which two words in a sentence switch places (e.g., "I must let the house out of the cat" instead of "I must let the cat out of the house"). The two words involved in a word-exchange error are typically further apart in the sentence than the two words involved in sound-exchange errors (two sounds switching places) (Garrett, 1980).

Morpheme-exchange errors involve inflections or suffixes remaining in place but attached to the wrong words (e.g., "He has already trunked two packs"). An implication from morpheme-exchange errors is that the positioning of inflections is dealt with by a rather separate process from the one responsible for positioning word stems (e.g., "trunk"; "pack"). There is some evidence that the word stems are worked out before the inflections are added. Smyth et al. (1987) pointed out that inflections are generally altered to fit in with the new word stems to which they are linked. For example, the "s" sound in the phrase "the forks of a prong" is pronounced in a way that is appropriate within the word "forks", but this is different from the "s" sound in the original word "prongs".

One of the best known speech errors is the spoonerism, in which the initial letter or letters of two or more words are switched. The Rev. William Archibald Spooner, after whom the spoonerism is named, is credited with several memorable examples, including "You have hissed all my mystery lectures" and "The Lord is a shoving leopard to his flock". Alas, most of the Rev. Spooner's gems were the result of much painstaking effort.

The study of genuine spoonerisms reveals that consonants always exchange with consonants and vowels with vowels, and that the exchanging phonemes are generally similar in sound (see Fromkin, 1993). Garrett (1976) reported that 93% of the spoonerisms in his collection involved a switching of letters between two words within the same clause, suggesting that the clause is an important unit in speech production.

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