This question is related to this question. It could be a dupe, but I am more interested in whether this is a form of "dyslexic" thinking (for want of a better expression)?

I posted this question on SE English:

Antonym for ameliorate

Where I could not recall the word deleterious and was remembering it as: detiliorate (a non-existent word). I was miss remembering the order of the syllables. plus some other confusion.

  • I was confusing the de-le-terious with de-ti-liorate, that is, I had inverted the "L" and "T" sounds in the syllables.

Why do people tend to get sounds mixed up in this way?
What is the process behind this?


2 Answers 2


One way of thinking about speech production is using a spreading activation architecture. Say I want to produce the word "rooster." I have a meaning to be expressed (feathery avian animal loud...etc). These semantic representations send activation down to various matching words (bird, rooster, chicken...etc). As these words collect evidence for themselves, they send activation down to their corresponding sounds (bird sends activation to the sounds /b/, /r/, and /d/; rooster sends activation to /r/, /u/, /s/, /t/ ..etc). Once any node (word, sound..etc) receives enough evidence for itself, it is selected. There are nuances about how and when nodes become selected and how activation is passed, but this is the gist. In addition, there is noise in the system based on words that were previously said, upcoming words, words that are semantically related and so on. This noise introduces the possibility for speech errors. Some errors are more likely than others depending on the amount of evidence they have collected. For example, in the example I presented here, the /r/ sound got more activation than the other sounds because it is collecting activation because it appears once in the word 'bird' and twice in the word 'rooster.' This sound might be more or less likely to be produced erroneously compared to sounds like /s/. These error probabilities explain why we are more likely to make real word errors, and why tongue twisters are so tricky. See the following article for more information.

Dell, G. S. (1986). A spreading-activation theory of retrieval in sentence production. Psychological review, 93(3), 283.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting theory. To apply it to the OP's specific issue, would you propose that familiarity with "ameliorate" led to over-activation (or an overly fixed ordering of activation) of the nodes involved in the erroneous version of "deleterious" that was more similar to the familiar word? (Incidentally, I just caught myself on a typo: "similiar!") $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2014 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ -1 This theory is not considered accurate by itself any longer. $\endgroup$
    – user3832
    Jan 22, 2014 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ Granted the theory has evolved over the past 30 years, but it is my impression that the field still fundamentally supports a spreading activation architecture in production. What modifications would you make? $\endgroup$
    – nberlove
    Jan 23, 2014 at 14:39

No this is not dyslexia and depending on the frequency it can be normal or abnormal. Its called aphasia and in adults it may be triggered by many different things. The primary explanation for chronic Aphasia is brain damage as per Neurolinguistics. However your limited example of aphasia was more likely caused by anxiety, lack of sleep, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia or any of the myriads of things which cause cognitive process anomalies.

Bellow is Figure 54-3 from Disorders of Languages: The Aphasia which represents the process of language formation. It is my contention that in addition to permanent brain lesions temporary disruptions of pathways caused by abnormal states of neurochemicals, nutrients and electrical signals trigger symptoms which can only be quantified as aphasia or aphasia like as well. Evidence based medicine reflects this by listing aphasia as some of the symptoms for hypoglycemia especially in diabetes, sleep deprivation, anxiety, low blood pressure. Of course I must mention Alogia in schizo typical patients showing the long and brief psychotic episodes cause temporary aphasia as well.

Aphasia 54-3

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Aphasia sounds like a good explanation for extreme cases, but the question seems to be focussing on normal adults confusing syllables, particularly for two less common words. Even if fatigue, etc increases the prevalence, what are your thoughts on why particular pairs of words are confused by normal adults more often than other pairs of words? $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2014 at 4:45
  • $\begingroup$ @JeromyAnglim similar misconnections in the brain which may be due to psychology or physiology. People who have certain word confusions reinforced will repeat those behaviors. The overall structure of Wernicke Broca lend itself to similar failures. Much in the same way some microprocessors from different manufactures but of the same code processing class make similar mistakes under stress. $\endgroup$
    – user3832
    Jan 22, 2014 at 8:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.