Unless you’re a trained public speaker, your natural speech probably consists of brief pauses filled with sounds like ‘uh’ or ‘uhm.’ These sounds slow down the rhythm of the speech, offering more time for the brain to process language and come up with the next utterance. According to new research, it turns out that these pauses occur far more frequently before nouns than verbs.


Credit: Pixabay.

Frank Seifart from the University of Amsterdam and Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich analyzed thousands of recordings of spontaneous speech from various populations around the world. The samples they included in the study were linguistically and culturally diverse, including speech in languages like English, French, and Dutch, but also including more obscure languages like those spoken in the Amazon rainforest, Siberia, and the Himalayas.

By measuring the speed of utterances (sounds per second) and noting where in the sentence the speaker was making pauses, the researchers found that slow-down effects were far more common before nouns than verbs.

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“We discovered that in this diverse sample of languages, there is a robust tendency for slow-down effects before nouns as compared to verbs,” explain Bickel and Seifart. “The reason is that nouns are more difficult to plan because they’re usually only used when they represent new information.”

When nouns are replaced by pronouns or outright omitted, there are far fewer pauses in the speech. For instance, consider the following sentences: “My friend came back. She took a seat.” versus “My friend came back and took a seat.”

It is not possible, however, to apply the same principles to verbs, which are used the same regardless of whether or not new information is present in the sentence.

Having convincing evidence that nouns are more difficult to plan across most languages is important for future research that investigates how the brain processes language. To gain even more insight, the linguists plan on expanding their research to include a wider net of languages. English, for instance, displayed exceptional behavior in terms of speed of utterance. Including more languages in the analysis, such as some of the hundreds of endangered languages around the world, will help scientists attain a better understanding of human language.

One important field of investigation in linguists is the evolution of grammar over time. These findings may help in this quest since slow-down effects can make it more difficult for nouns to develop into more complex forms through contraction with words that precede them. The researchers mention how in German, for instance, prefixes are far more common in verbs (ver-kommen, be-kommen, vor-kommen, etc.) than in nouns.

Scientific reference: Frank Seifart, Jan Strunk, Swintha Danielsen, Iren Hartmann, Brigitte Pakendorf, Søren Wichmann, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Nivja de Jong, Balthasar Bickel. Nouns slow down speech: evidence from structurally and culturally diverse languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800708115.