Last updated May 17, 2018 at 11:59 am
Multi-language analysis finds human speech slows down when it encounters nouns.
If you’re talking and you want to get your message across quickly, then ditch the nouns.
That’s the message arising from research done by a team led by Frank Seifartfrom the University of Zurich and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To make their findings, the scientists analysed thousands of recordings of spontaneous speech uttered by people from a wide range of linguistic backgrounds.
Some of the samples were drawn from widely spoken languages such as English and Dutch, while others were taken from less common linguistic groups, including tongues spoken in the Amazon rainforest, Siberia and the Kalahari desert.
Looking at the results, the team noted a behaviour common to all – whenever they had to deploy a noun, speakers either slowed down their delivery, paused momentarily or inserted a meaningless sound, such as “um”, beforehand.
No hesitancy with verbs
Verbs, on the other hand, were usually delivered without pause or qualification.
The hesitancy apparent before the deployment of a noun, the researchers suggest, has to do with planning.
“We discovered that in this diverse sample of languages, there is a robust tendency for slow-down effects before nouns as compared to verbs,” explains Seifart.
“The reason is that nouns are more difficult to plan because they’re usually only used when they represent new information.”
In speech, nouns, the researchers say, tend to be used once, to introduce a person or thing, and are then replaced on subsequent occasions by pronouns such as “she”, “he” or “it”. Verbs, on the other hand, tend to get used whether the subject to which they are appended is new or not.
The researchers say the findings point to interesting clues about the way human brains process language. They also suggest universal forces are at work governing how language evolves, and may explain why in many tongues verbs develop into complex forms while nouns tend not to become qualified by prefixes or suffixes.