Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Nouns slow down speech

Nouns slow down speech across structurally and culturally diverse languages

Frank Seifart, Jan Strunk, Swintha Danielsen, Iren Hartmann, Brigitte Pakendorf, Søren Wichmann, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Nivja H. de Jong, and Balthasar Bickel

PNAS May 14, 2018. 201800708; published ahead of print May 14, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1800708115


When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.


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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