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Use of Nouns Delays Speech

Summary: Researchers say using nouns may slow down our speech. The study reveals the use of nouns takes more cognitive planning.

Source: Leiden University.

Why do we sometimes speak more slowly or more rapidly, and why do we sometimes have a longer pause between uttering particular words? This has to do with whether you are about to use a noun or a verb. This is the finding from research by an international team led by linguist Frank Seifart from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in collaboration with Leiden University (and other institutions). The results identified by the team have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Every speech utterance is produced at a certain speed, but that speed is not constant. Speakers subconsciously speed up and slow down their speech. Variation in the speed of speech is influenced by a complex combination of factors, including the frequency and predictability of words, their information status and their position within an utterance. Applyinga new approach,Seifart and his colleagues use the speed of speech as an index for planning the utterance of words. They focus on the period of time in which speakers prepare the production of words from the two most important lexical classes: nouns and verbs.

Noun versus verb

‘We have analysed recordings of natural speech from nine linguistically and culturally diverse populations across the world,from the Amazon area to Siberia, and from the Himalayas to the Kalahari desert, as well as the US and the Netherlands,’ Seifart explains. ‘We measured the rate of speech in terms of how many segments(‘letters’) were produced per second and in terms of the gaps between words. This showed that in all nine languages there is a strong tendency for speech to be slower beforea noun than before a verb. That was something of a surprise because the general assumption from previous research was that verbs take more time to plan.’

woman talking on phone

The new study suggests that cross-linguistic patterns of speeding up or slowing down speech can be deduced from the information status of the content of the utterance. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

The findings made by Seifart and his colleagues indicate that nouns actually take more planning. The researchers believe that this is because of the newness of the information represented by nouns. Nous are only used when new information has to be presented. If that is not the case, then a noun is replaced by a pronoun, such as ‘he’ or ‘she’ or is left out altogether. Seifart gives an example: ‘If it is obvious from previous information that it is about a man, subsequent utterances will use “he”rather than “the man”. So, you don’t say: “The man came in and the man sat down.” Instead you say: “The man came in and he sat down.” There isn’t a similar substitution principle for verbs. They are always used whether or not they refer to information that is already known.’

Strong universalia

The new study suggests that cross-linguistic patterns of speeding up or slowing down speech can be deduced from the information status of the content of the utterance. The researchers also state that classes of words should be included more systematically in models of speech production. Seifart: ‘Our findings indicate that behind the amazing diversity of grammatical structures and cultural environments, there are strong universalia of linguistic processes that are closely related to how speakers manager referential information in their communications.’

It is surprising that English, on which earlier research was mainly based, exhibits the most exceptional behaviour of the nine languages studied. This means that if you only look at English, there is a good chance you will miss important generalisations about human language. It now appears that data from small, often threatened languages are crucial for our understanding of human language.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Leiden University
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Nouns slow down speech across structurally and culturally diverse languages” by Frank Seifart, Jan Strunk, Swintha Danielsen, Iren Hartmann, Brigitte Pakendorf, Søren Wichmann, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Nivja H. de Jong, and Balthasar Bickel in PNAS. Published May 14 2018.
doi:10.1073/pnas.1800708115

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Leiden University “Use of Nouns Delays Speech.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 16 May 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/speech-nouns-9071/>.
Leiden University (2018, May 16). Use of Nouns Delays Speech. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 16, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/speech-nouns-9071/
Leiden University “Use of Nouns Delays Speech.” http://neurosciencenews.com/speech-nouns-9071/ (accessed May 16, 2018).

Abstract

Pretreatment Rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex Theta Activity in Relation to Symptom Improvement in Depression: A Randomized Clinical Trial

By force of nature, every bit of spoken language is produced at a particular speed. However, this speed is not constant—speakers regularly speed up and slow down. Variation in speech rate is influenced by a complex combination of factors, including the frequency and predictability of words, their information status, and their position within an utterance. Here, we use speech rate as an index of word-planning effort and focus on the time window during which speakers prepare the production of words from the two major lexical classes, nouns and verbs. We show that, when naturalistic speech is sampled from languages all over the world, there is a robust cross-linguistic tendency for slower speech before nouns compared with verbs, both in terms of slower articulation and more pauses. We attribute this slowdown effect to the increased amount of planning that nouns require compared with verbs. Unlike verbs, nouns can typically only be used when they represent new or unexpected information; otherwise, they have to be replaced by pronouns or be omitted. These conditions on noun use appear to outweigh potential advantages stemming from differences in internal complexity between nouns and verbs. Our findings suggest that, beneath the staggering diversity of grammatical structures and cultural settings, there are robust universals of language processing that are intimately tied to how speakers manage referential information when they communicate with one another.

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