Mishearings

Oliver Sacks, in an opinion column “Mishearings” in today’s NYT:

A few weeks ago, when I heard my assistant Kate say to me, “I am going to choir practice,” I was surprised. I have never, in the 30 years we have worked together, heard her express the slightest interest in singing. But I thought, who knows? Perhaps this is a part of herself she has kept quiet about; perhaps it is a new interest; perhaps her son is in a choir; perhaps .…

I was fertile with hypotheses, but I did not consider for a moment that I had misheard her. It was only on her return that I found she had been to the chiropractor.

… As my deafness increases, I am more and more prone to mishearing what people say, though this is quite unpredictable; it may happen 20 times, or not at all, in the course of a day.

(a familiar topic on this blog, though usually without the involvement of deafness).

As a good scientist, Sacks studies the phenomenon:

I carefully record these in a little red notebook labeled “PARACUSES” — aberrations in hearing, especially mishearings. I enter what I hear (in red) on one page, what was actually said (in green) on the opposite page, and (in purple) people’s reactions to my mishearings, and the often far-fetched hypotheses I may entertain in an attempt to make sense of what is often essentially nonsensical.

After the publication of Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” in 1901, such mishearings, along with a range of misreadings, misspeakings, misdoings and slips of the tongue were seen as “Freudian,” an expression of deeply repressed feelings and conflicts.

But although there are occasional, unprintable mishearings that make me blush, a vast majority do not admit any simple Freudian interpretation. In almost all of my mishearings, however, there is a similar overall sound, a similar acoustic gestalt, linking what is said and what is heard. Syntax is always preserved, but this does not help; mishearings are likely to capsize meaning, to overwhelm it with phonologically similar but meaningless or absurd sound forms, even though the general form of a sentence is preserved.

Scholars of linguistic errors have long observed that the primary determinants of mishearings are phonological; see

Sara Garnes & Zinny S. Bond, “A slip of the ear: a snip of the ear? a slip of the year?”, in Victoria Fromkin (ed.), Errors in Linguistic Performance: Slips of the Tongue, Ear, Pen, and Hand (Academic Press, 1980), pp. 231-9.

For severaj years, I’ve been keeping track, in a less systematic fashion than Sacks, of my own mishearings, occasionally posting on them, along with related postings on mondegreens and such possibly related phenomena as malapropisms of several types. I have now assembled a Page on this blog on all these phenomena, under the heading “mishearing postings”, under the “Linguistics notes” Page”.

On deafness. I have posted on mishearings due to deafness, but to a more extravagant degree than Sack’s current state: the deafness of my man Jacques:

My man Jacques was deaf in one ear for some years, relying on clever hearing aids that nevertheless picked up a lot of noise, and then the hearing in his other ear declined disastrously, so that as time went on, he lived in a swirl of mishearings, colored deeply by his expectations. Eventually, watching television shows brought him stories utterly different from the ones the rest of us saw, and those closest to him (his brother and sister-in-law, my daughter Elizabeth, and me) came to treat conversations with him as a kind of verbal tennis: one of us would say something, he’d lob something unexpected back at us, we did our best to return the shot, and so on. You had to stop hoping for ordinary conversation and just go with things, enjoy the Ionesco scene.

4 Responses to “Mishearings”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Coren on Facebook:

    A year or two ago, one of my dancing friends said he couldn’t attend some event, and I quite nonsensically thought (and I don’t think I was the only one) that he had said that he needed to clean the middle joints of his legs, whereas of course he really was referring to an obligation to take care of his sister’s daughter.

    That is, he had to watch his niece, not wash his knees.

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I just got home from Santa Cruz Pride, and was confused to hear my younger son say that Beyoncé had posted a message wondering who she would be seeing at Santa Cruz Pride. It turned out he had actually been referring to a friend’s *fiancée*.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    A pair of Facebook postings from Steve Anderson about mishearings. First, an annoyed reaction to Sacks:

    A good book about this phenomenon is Gerald Shea’s “Song Without Words,” which Sacks evidently hasn’t read (or just ignores, because he didn’t write it, and obviously he discovered this all on his own for the very first time).

    The Amazon.com description, by Karen Springer on Booklist:
    Gerald Shea, Song without words: Discovering my deafness halfway through life. Da Capo Press 2013

    In this fascinating memoir, overachiever Shea –– who graduated from Andover, Yale, and Columbia Law School and became a partner at a prestigious New York law firm — explains what it’s like to be partially deaf. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else, he lost his ability to hear higher ranges of speech (that is, most consonants) after he contracted scarlet fever at age six. (As he notes, he was lucky: Helen Keller became both deaf and blind from the same disease.) To compensate, he learns to decode sounds he calls “lyricals.” He hears “characters” as “cows are saying” and “Be careful crossing the street” as “Be airful washing the trees.” As he tries to translate what he mishears, he makes mistakes, such as reading the next five chapters in a book instead of the next five pages. Hearing aids help, but not always. Eventually, he quits his job, learns sign language, and spends more quality time with his wife and kids. His story gives one a renewed appreciation for both the ear and the human spirit.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Second comment from Steve Anderson:

    Recalling the interest in slips of the tongue some years back, this phenomenon has a certain amount of potential significance for linguists, and research subjects shouldn’t be too hard to find. Self-reporting tends to be enormously biased toward the “interesting” (funny, mildly obscene, etc.) examples, just as with some of the speech error corpora, and it might be hard to collect genuinely representative data. Gerry Shea’s book provides a good deal of useful background. In its original form, there was more academic material, especially about sign, but his publishers made him take all that stuff out so as to increase the popular appeal. He’s working on another, somewhat more academically oriented book now.

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