Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Sounds of Words Like Nouns and Verbs

Cornell's Morten Christiansen has discovered, through the miracle of science, that different parts of speech sound different:
The researchers took the sounds of more than 3,000 words in English and subdivided each by its phonetic features—what a person does with their mouth to produce the sounds of each word.

"We could then represent each word in a multidimensional space," Christiansen told LiveScience. . . .

The nouns were closer to other nouns, and the verbs were closer to other verbs. About 65 percent of all nouns have another noun as its nearest neighbor and about the same percentage of all verbs have another verb next door, Christiansen said.

. . . .

To demonstrate that people were sensitive to this fact, the researchers timed volunteers while they read words of a sentence, appearing one at a time on a computer screen.

They measured how long it took to read each word. The researchers found that volunteers had an easier time processing verbs that sound more like the typical sounding verbs, such as "amuse." The same went for nouns that were more "nouny," like the word "marble."
Link. Of course, this finding comes as no surprise to those of us who have known since the midseventies that nouns sound like this and verbs like this. Yet, as Geoff Pullum at the always interesting Language Log notes, some of us still have trouble with these tricky parts of speech:
The linguistic point, and I do have one, is that at one stage in [Jon Stewart's] rambling and oddly unfunny remarks, apropos of almost nothing but near some confused stuff about war, Stewart said this:

We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I'm sure we'll take on that bastard ennui[.]

. . . .

The traditional definition of the term "noun" has a fantastically strong hold on the public imagination. In old-fashioned grammar books it is usually the first line of the first section of the first chapter: "A noun," it will say, "is the name of a person, place, or thing." What Jon Stewart has dimly perceived is that terror is not a person, so we can't assassinate it; it is not a place, so we can't bomb it; and it is not a thing, so we can't find where it is and blow it up—it has no spatial location.

. . . .

The way to tell whether a word is a noun in English is to ask questions like: Does it have a plural form (the terrors of childhood)? Does it have a genitive form (terror's effects)? Does it occur with the articles the and a (the terror)? Can you use it as the main or only word in the subject of a clause (Terror rooted me to the spot), or the object of a preposition (war on terror)? And so on. These are grammatical questions. Syntactic and morphological questions. Not semantic ones.
Link. I agree. It seems pretty obvious at this point that we are at war with something that has a plural form.

Indexed by tags science, language, noun, verb, sound, linguistics, terror, Jon Stewart, war, politics.


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