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, Balthasar Bickel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations

Abstract

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.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)5720-5725
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume115
Issue number22
DOIs
StatePublished - 29 May 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

Keywords

  • Language processing
  • Language universals
  • Nouns
  • Speech rate
  • Word planning

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