Have you ever been about to say something, but for some reason your mind blanked and you couldn’t quite think of the word you wanted to use? That annoying feeling of being so close to knowing what the word you want is but not quite being able to access it actually has a name. It is perhaps unsurprisingly called tip of the tongue state.
What is tip of the tongue state?
Given the common expression “it’s on the tip of my tongue,” tip of the tongue state—also known to linguists as TOT state—is exactly what you’d expect. It is a phenomenon where you know that you know a word, can even visualize how long it is, how many syllables it has, and often the first letter, but for whatever reason you just can’t access the word itself (Rousseau, 2021).
Of course, that’s all well and good, but why do our memories fail us in this way? What does this phenomenon tell us about the way our brains process language?
What does tip of the tongue state tell us about language processing?
Tip of the tongue state supports the idea that before we can actually say a word, there are two stages that are happening in our minds faster than we realize:
- Accessing the meaning of a word. It makes sense that this comes first because when we’re talking, before we can say anything, we need to figure out on a more abstract level what ideas we want to get across
- Accessing the sounds that make up that word. At this stage our brains have matched the ideas we want to get across with corresponding words. All we have to do now is figure out what sounds are associated with the words we want to say so that they come out of our mouths properly when we’re talking
The occurrence of TOT seems to indicate that sometimes something goes wrong when trying to get from stage one to stage two. This processing interruption leads us to have something “on the tip of our tongues” because we know there’s a word to say what we’re thinking, but something is preventing us from being able to produce the actual sounds to get the word out (Sullivan, 2022).
Interestingly, studies also show that this phenomenon affects different groups of people differently. For example, studies have found that people who are bilingual experience more TOTs than people who only speak one language. Researchers think that this might be because bilingual people have less experience with each language they know individually and have the vocabularies of two languages to mentally sort through, which may lead them to get stuck more often in stage two (Gollan et al., 2006).
In addition to different types of people like bilinguals having assorted experiences with TOT, this phenomenon can also be felt differently if you find yourself in a group of people instead of alone.
Can your friend give you TOT?
Have you ever been in a situation where someone is struggling to think of a word or a name, but when they ask your help to try and remember it you find yourself in the same boat? Well, there is research that shows people are more likely to experience TOT state in a group than by themselves (Rousseau, 2021; Rousseau & Kashur, 2021). When you are in a group, there are more factors at play that may increase the possibility you will experience a tip of the tongue state over when you are alone (Rousseau & Kashur, 2021).
For example, what the people in your group say and do might spread their TOT to you. In this case, the tip of the tongue state would arise from something called social contagion. Basically, because someone asked, “what is that word?” or you unconsciously noticed something in their facial expression or other body language that lets you know they have TOT, you now find yourself experiencing the same temporary gap in your memory that they are; you’ve caught tip of the tongue state from them (Rousseau & Kashur, 2021).
It is also possible that being in a group might influence you in other inconspicuous and unconscious ways. In groups, people are likely to think with a “more heads are better than one” mentality. This mindset makes people think that the word is close to being remembered…at least by someone. Unfortunately, this assumption also seems to trigger TOT states more frequently (Rousseau & Kashur, 2021). Regardless of how it happens though, it’s safe to say that the presence of other people does affect your experiences with TOT. Now your only question left about TOT should be, why is this important?
TLDR—What’s the takeaway?
Okay, so now you know that tip of the tongue state is the feeling you get when you know what you want to say but your brain just can’t get the sounds out, and that if you get it while you’re with a friend you might be able to blame them for “contaminating” you with it. It is also important to remember that tip of the togue state is a totally normal phenomenon to experience—enduring an annoying TOT state every once in a while doesn’t mean that you have a bad memory or a problem with how your brain analyzes language, it’s something that happens to everyone.
TOTs actually serve us well during social situations in our everyday lives. For instance, if someone asks you a question that you can’t immediately answer, being able to say that something is “on the tip of your tongue” allows you to show that you’re smart and that you know the answer even if you can’t display it at the present moment. Or what about that awful situation where you should remember a name or a date that won’t quite come to you? You can blame it on TOT to save yourself the embarrassment of admitting you don’t know (Rousseau & Kashur, 2021)!
Gollan, T. H., Brown, A. S. & Lindsay, D. S. (2006). From tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) data to theoretical implications in two steps: When more TOTs means better retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 135(3), 462–483. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34184.108.40.2062
Rousseau, L. (2021, August 19). That ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ feeling when a memory is elusive is more likely to happen in groups. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/that-tip-of-the-tongue-feeling-when-a-memory-is-elusive-is-more-likely-to-happen-in-groups-165146
Rousseau, L. & Kashur, N. (2021). Socially shared feelings of imminent recall: More tip-of-the-tongue states are experienced in small groups. Front. Psychol. 12:704433. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.704433
Sullivan, L. (2022). JLP 374 Psychology of Language Lecture 6: Production I. [PowerPoint Slides].