Nouns are Slowing Down our Speech, Study Finds

| by: Whitney Rothwell |

New research has found that nouns cause us to hesitate or pause when speaking more often than other articles of speech such as verbs. A study from University of Zurich says that we tend to hesitate and pause with sounds like “uh”, “like” and “um” mostly before nouns. The effect is much less frequent before verbs. 

Choosing whether to include, replace, or omit a noun, forces us to think a little more when uttering them.

Naturally when we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and add arbitrary sounds when we pause. Examining these slow-down effects can be integral in understanding how our brains process language.

To learn about how these effects work, researchers analyzed thousands of recordings of spontaneous speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations around the world. The regions studied included the Amazon rainforest, Siberia, the Himalayas, the Kalahari desert, as well as English and Dutch speaking countries. 

The speed of speaking was measured in sounds per second and researchers noted whenever speakers made short pauses. The results show we have more difficulties when we have to plan before saying a specific word.

“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 research team leaders Balthazar Bickel and Frank Seifart. “The reason is that nouns are more difficult to plan because they’re usually only used when they represent new information.” 

When the information they represent is already known, nouns are replaced with pronouns (e.g., she, he, they) or omitted, as in the following examples: “My friend came back. She (my friend) took a seat” or “My friend came back and took a seat”.

It turns out that choosing whether to include, replace, or omit a noun, forces us to think a little more when uttering them. This replacement principle doesn’t apply to verbs, which are used regardless of whether they represent new or old information.

These findings shed light on how grammar evolves and how languages work in their natural environments. This is increasingly important in a digital age where language faces new frontiers and challenges, like communicating with artificial systems which may not slow down in speaking as humans naturally do.