Runny Babbit and Other Slips of the Tongue


This lesson can accompany Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit book which uses lots of word play.

Grade Level: 
Grades 3-5
Class Time Needed: 
1 hour
Lesson Plan: 

Read some of the Runny Babbit poems by Shel Silverstein. Ask the students to describe what is happening. (Exchange of initial sounds. Look at the ones that start with consonant clusters; does the first letter exchange or the whole cluster?) Point out that these poems were written this way intentionally, but that we do this kind of thing all the time.

Let's look at some other examples and describe what's going on.

Slips of the tongue reveal that even our errors follow linguistic rules, and are not completely arbitrary. (Spoonerisms)

lighting a fire fighting a liar
missed all my history lectures hissed all my mystery lectures
dear old queen queer old dean
blow your nose know your blows

And some others I've collected:

bad, naughty kitten nad, baughty kitten
take off my snow pants snake off my toe pants

Sometimes the middle of the words can exchange instead of the beginning:

stoke the fire stike the foire
bit the cat bat the cit

Sometimes even pieces of sounds can exchange: (The older students were able to figure out that the nasality of the n was moving onto the bilabial b, making it into a bilabial nasal m in the first example.)

bad, naughty kitten mad, daughty kitten
pity the new teacher mity the dew teacher

Sometimes pieces of words can exchange:

The child was reading. The read was childing.

In this slip, two content morphemes-child and read-exchange places, leaving the affix -ing in place. No one ever makes the error, however, in which an entire word moves along with its affix: no one would ever say The childing was read. This illustrates that the slips we make are systematic and not random.

Sometimes words with similar or related meanings are exchanged:

This is too hot. This is too cold.
My pants are too short. My pants are too tight.

The following actual slips of the tongue illustrate similar manipulation of morphemes. Describe what happens in each and what they reveal about unconscious morphological knowledge.

intended utterance actual utterance
They misunderestimated me. They misunderstood/underestimated me.
landed on her head headed on her land
I regard this as imprecise. I disregard this as precise.
face it squarely square it facely
I had forgotten about it. I had forgot aboutten it.

So when we mess up when we're speaking, it actually reveals how much we know.
- shows that our brains are thinking ahead
- shows our mouths can't always keep with our brains
- shows that we can take apart words into their parts (taking off suffixes and prefixes)
- shows that most of what we know about language we don't have to be taught