Dream Speech
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Dream Speech

Dream speech (in German Traumsprache) is internal speech in which errors occur during a dream. The term was coined by Emil Kraepelin in his 1906 monograph titled Über Sprachstörungen im Traume ("On Language Disturbances in Dreams"). The text discussed various forms of dream speech, outlining 286 examples. Dream speech is not to be confounded with the 'language of dreams', which refers to the visual means of representing thought in dreams.[]

Three types of dream speech were considered by Kraepelin: disorders of word-selection (also called paraphasias), disorders of discourse (e.g. agrammatisms) and thought disorders. The most frequent occurring form of dream speech is a neologism.

Kraepelin studied dream speech because it provided him with clues to the analogous language disturbances of patients with schizophrenia. Still in 1920 he stated that "dream speech in every detail corresponds to schizophrenic speech disorder."

While Kraepelin was interested in the psychiatric as well as the psychological aspects of dream speech, modern researchers have been interested in speech production in dreams as illuminating aspects of cognition in the dreaming mind. They have found that during dream speech, Wernicke's area is functioning well, but Broca's area is not, leading to proper grammar but little meaning.

The other Kraepelin

Dream speech opens up a new perspective on the psychiatrist Kraepelin, usually seen as the spiritual father of the DSM system of classification of psychiatric diseases, and of biological psychiatry. However Kraepelin, one of the first disciples of Wilhelm Wundt, took a lifelong interest in psychology, and even edited a journal Psychologische Arbeiten. One of the booklets of this journal, a 104-page article on dream speech, appeared early in 1906, before the 105-page monograph was published at the end of 1906.

Dreaming for psychiatry's sake

In his monograph Kraepelin presented 286 examples of dream speech, mainly his own. After 1906 he continued to collect samples of dream speech until his death in 1926. This time the dream speech specimens were almost exclusively his own and the original hand written dream texts are still available today at the Archive of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. These new dream speech specimens have been published in 1993 in Heynick (in part in English translation) and in 2006 in the original German, with numerous valuable notes added. The second dream corpus has not been censored and dates are added to the dreams. As Kraepelin in 1906 had been collecting dream speech for more than 20 years, he jotted down his dream speech specimens for more than 40 years, with a scientific viewpoint in mind.

Kraepelin's dream speech started during a period (1882-1884) of personal crisis and depression. In 1882 Kraepelin was fired after working only a few weeks at the Leipzig psychiatric clinic and two months later his father died.

Schizophrenic speech disorder

Already in the early years of his career Kraepelin had been confronted with schizophrenic speech disorder - called first Sprachverwirrtheit then schizophrene Sprachverwirrtheit and finally Schizophasie - produced by his patients. But --as Kraepelin states-- the schizophasia can hardly be studied, because what the patient is trying to express is unknown.

However using the classical dream-psychosis analogy, he tried to first study dream speech in the hope that this would lead to insights into schizophrenic speech disorder. And so Kraepelin got used to recording his dreams, not to interpret them for personal use as in psychanalysis, but to use them for a scientific study. Kraepelin was not only able to record the deviant speech in his dreams, but also the intended utterance (which was lacking in the deviant speech of his patients, who clearly cannot cross the boundary from psychosis to reality). For example, most neologisms (the deviant utterance) in Kraepelin's dreams have a meaning (the intended utterance).

Fundamental disturbances

Kraepelin pointed out two fundamental disturbances underlying dream speech: a diminished functioning of the Wernicke area, and a diminished functioning of those frontal areas in which abstract reasoning is localized. Therefore, individual ideas (Individualvorstellungen) get expressed in dreams instead of general ideas. Among these individual ideas he included proper names in their widest sense.

Two examples

Kraepelin's dream speech specimens range from rather simple to extremely intricate. Kraepelin's own analysis is limited in scope. The monograph (available on Google) shows his approach. Several of his dreams can however be analysed in depth. Two examples - one from the second corpus and one from the first and both not analysed by Kraepelin himself - illustrate this.

Vi, tafalk!

On August 13, 1923 Kraepelin jotted down the following example of dream speech:

Vi, tafalk!

This is, as Kraepelin informs us, an order to the grave digger, named Vi, to bring the coffin for the body during a funeral. Kraepelin notes, that the neologism tafalk is a shortcut for German Katafalk (catafalque). Obviously Vi--in the utterance Vi, tafalk--replaces the syllable Ka.


While Vi, tafalk! is quite easy to analyze, in the same article (p. 1290) the authors demonstrate how the associative paths leading to the complex neologism nsens (in dream specimen no. 107 of Kraepelin's first corpus) can be reconstructed from its origin Firmenschild (= "company sign").

Nsens derives from the English word "nonsense", once the letters of the word "one" have been deleted. Literally nsens is nonsense - one. This in its turn links to "crap a ace" ("crap" meaning "nonsense", Greek prefix a meaning "without" and "ace" meaning "one" in dice games). "Crap a ace" is derived from a metathesis of "carapace", a typical Kraepelin-word for German Schild in Firmenschild. In short four association steps link Schild to nsens:

Schild= (1) carapace - (2) crap a ace= (3) nonsense without one - (4) nsens.

The chain shows an alternation of conceptual associations (e.g. synonyms) and word form associations (character and sound associations).

(1) and (3) are conceptual associations, (2) and (4) are word form associations.

Kraepelin himself -- ignorant of the code governing his dream speech -- termed nsens an example of "syllable combinations jumbled in a completely arbitrary way." He thinks nsens is Russian. Kraepelin's false assertion, according to the authors, originates from the associative network in his dreaming brain during the production of nsens. It is Russian krepkea (? ['krep.k?.j?]), meaning "firm" and so an association to the first part of Firmenschild, that provokes the transformation of "carapace" to "crap a ace". Krepkea as well as "crap" are Kraepelin-words.

In terms of cryptography (1) and (3) are code-type associations, emphasizing meaning, whereas (2) and (4) are cipher-type associations, emphasizing characters (cf. Pincock & Fary, 2007, p. 13).

The Kraepelin code

Words like 'carapace', 'krapkea', and 'crap' constitute the 'Kraepelin' code, a set of words that sound like parts of the proper name Kraepelin and influence/direct associational processes. The key role of the proper name can be explained by referring to the so-called cocktail party effect, which states that during a cocktail party we tune in on our discussion partner, neglecting background noise. However, we notice when someone in the background pronounces our name. This cocktail party effect has been replicated in an experimental set up using the dichotic listening technique. It has been shown that only our proper name tends to break through the attentional barrier, i.e. breaks through amidst other, neglected, sounds offered to the unattended ear. Thus it follows that our proper name is detected even under conditions of low attention. What happens within outer speech during a cocktail-party, likewise occurs within inner speech in dreams. Code words - linked in sound to our proper name - will be detected in the set of potential associations during thinking. The ongoing thinking process will then deviate because code words will act as priming-words, influencing the direction in which associations will go (Engels, 2005, p. 187).

Chaika vs. Fromkin

As Kraepelin likened dream speech to schizophasia, what is the current view on the last disorder? While in the famous debate during the '70s between the linguists Elaine Chaika and Victoria Fromkin on schizophrenic speech, Chaika long held the position that schizophasia was sort of an intermittent aphasia while Fromkin stated that schizophrenic speech errors could also occur in "normals," the debate has now been ended because according to Chaika (1995)

I no longer think that error in [schizophrenic] speech disorder should be necessarily equated with the aphasias which result from actual brain damage.

She also thinks that

The interpretation of meaning of such speech can be quite different according to whether it is perceived as resulting from a true deficit in language production as opposed to resulting from failed intention.

Chaika compares schizophrenic speech errors with intricate speech errors, difficult to analyze. The current Chaika position comes close to Kraepelin's position (1920), who noted that errors as in schizophasia can also occur in normals in dreams.

Cognitive dream speech research

At first sight dream speech plays only a marginal role in dream theory. However the important connection of dream and speech is very well illustrated by the following statement of David Foulkes: "However visual dreaming may seem, it may be planned and regulated by the human speech production system." (see e.g. Kilroe, 2001).

Recent research has confirmed one of Kraepelin's fundamental disturbances. In the book The Committee of Sleep, Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett describes examples of dreamed literature--in which the dreamers heard or read words which they awakened later wrote and published. She observes that almost all the examples are of poetry rather than prose or fiction, the only exceptions being one- or several-word phrases such as the Book title Vanity Fair which came to Thackeray in a dream, or similarly Katherine Mansfield's Sun and Moon. Barrett suggests that the reason poetry fares better in dreams is that grammar seems to be well preserved in dream language while meaning suffers and rhyme and rhythm are more prominent than when awake--all characteristics which benefit poetry but not other forms.

In other work, Barrett has studied verbatim language in college students' dreams and found them similar in these characteristics--intact grammar, poor meaning, rhythm and rhyme--to the literary examples. She observes that this is suggestive that of the two language centers in the brain, Wernicke's area must not be functioning well, but Broca's area seems to be as this language resembles that of patients with Wernicke's aphasia. Essentially the same conclusion Kraepelin reached in 1906.

See also


  • Engels, Huub (2006). Emil Kraepelins Traumsprache 1908-1926. ISBN 978-90-6464-060-5
  • Heynick, F. (1993). Language and its disturbances in dreams: the pioneering work of Freud and Kraepelin updated. New York: Wiley.
  • Kraepelin, E. (1906). Über Sprachstörungen im Traume. Leipzig: Engelmann.

Further reading

  • Chaika, E. (1995). On analysing schizophrenic speech: what model should we use? In A. Sims (ed.) Speech and Language Disorder in Psychiatry.pp. 47-56. London: Gaskell
  • Engels, Huub, Heynick, Frank, & Staak, Cees v.d. (2003). Emil Kraepelin's dream speech: A psychoanalytical interpretation. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 84:1281-1294.
  • Engels, Huub (2009). Emil Kraepelins Traumsprache: erklären und verstehen. In Dietrich von Engelhardt und Horst-Jürgen Gerigk (ed.). Karl Jaspers im Schnittpunkt von Zeitgeschichte, Psychopathologie, Literatur und Film. p. 331-43. ISBN 978-3-86809-018-5 Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag.
  • Kilroe, Patricia A. (2001). Verbal Aspects of Dreaming: A Preliminary Classification. Dreaming: Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams. Vol 11(3) 105-113, Sep 2001.
  • Kraepelin, E. (1920). Die Erscheinungsformen des Irreseins.
  • Pincock, S. & Frary, M. (2007). Code Breaker. The History of Secret Communication. London: RH Books.

External links

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