Scientists find a relationship between how a word sounds and how it's used.

Even if you had never seen the word “marble” before, you still may be able to fit it into a sentence. No, you couldn’t figure out what it means just by looking at the letters, but the phonetic composition of the word could clue you in to one key characteristic: “Marble” is a noun.

According to a study published in the August 8th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a relationship exists between a word’s sound and its usage. Further, we are able to process words typical of their part of speech more quickly than we can process words with unusual phonology.

“We didn’t show that there are systematic relationships between the way a word sounds in terms of its phonological representation and its specific meaning, per se, but we did show the way the word sounds can actually help provide evidence to the hearer or the reader—evidence toward whether or not the word is used as a noun or a verb,” said lead author Thomas Farmer, a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at Cornell University.

Farmer and Cornell psychology professor Morten Christiansen created a multi-dimensional space, where each dimension represented a different phonetic feature, such as whether a sound is voiced. They mapped words onto this space based on their phonetic composition and found that nouns tended to cluster together, as did verbs.

Farmer and Christiansen analyzed a set of data from a 1997 experiment which measured how long it took subjects to pronounce different words. They found that nouns that sounded like typical nouns—those that mapped toward the center of the noun cluster, such as “marble”—rolled off the tongue more quickly than verb-like nouns such as “insect.” The subjects handled verbs in a similar fashion.

The Cornell team then performed a similar study, which reinforced the previous study’s conclusions: We read words that are typical of their part of speech more quickly than those that are not.

Farmer said the results fly in the face of basic linguistic assumptions.

“For a long time it’s been sort of a hallmark of linguistic theory that there’s a very arbitrary relationship between the way a word sounds and what it means,” he said. “So, when you look at a word, there’s not supposed to be any information there about its meaning.”

But linguist Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, contends the conclusions don’t rock the foundations of the discipline.

“Languages develop all kinds of little shortcuts and correlations that aid fast and reliable understanding,” Jackendoff said via e-mail. “Phonological correlations have been known for years for certain classes of English verbs and nouns, for example the verb ‘perMIT’ versus the noun ‘PERmit.’”

Originally published August 1, 2006

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