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Frans Ernst

Use of nouns delays speech

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, in different languages, 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. Applying a 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 before a 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.' 

The findings made by Seifart and his colleagues indicate that nouns atually 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.

Image: Visitors to the Language Museum in Leiden.