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Listening to the Sound of Words for Subtle Clues to Their Meaning

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: sensing the meaning of words from their sound. A study in next week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explores the connection.

RS: Researchers studied the sound, or phonology, of more than three thousand nouns and verbs. Then they analyzed how typical these sounds are in relation to one another.

AA: For the findings, we sounded out one of the authors at Cornell University, Morten Christiansen.

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "There is a standard case of onomatopoeia [AH-noh-mah-toh-PEE-uh] where, you know, when you hear the word 'buzz,' it sort of very directly indicates what that word means. But in general the relationship between the sound of a word and what it refers to or what it means is sort of more arbitrary. But what we have found is that there is actually some information in the words themselves that can tell you whether the word is a noun or a verb, and that's something that people are sensitive to."

RS: "How did you test this?"

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "We had people reading sentences on a computer screen, word by word, so one word at a time. And essentially they're just looking at a screen, they press the space bar and then a word will come up on the screen, and then another word when they press the space bar next. And we measure how long it takes them to read each word.

"And what we found was that when people are reading the nouns that were typical -- in terms of what they sound like -- of other nouns, then people would read these words faster than if you had a word, say a noun, that was more actually verb-like in what it sounds like."

AA: "I'm curious, is there an application to -- one thing that comes to mind would be maybe technical writing, instructions. If you were writing instructions and you wanted people to read them as quickly as possible, maybe in a case of an emergency, you would choose -- what advice, you know, might you have in terms of choice of nouns or verbs or things like that?"

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "I actually haven't thought about it, but it's actually a very good idea, I think. Certainly you could potentially make a certain set of instructions more easily to comprehend, at least allow people to comprehend them faster, if you could potentially find nouns and verbs and the same would go for other kinds of words such as adjectives ... "

AA: "That are common? Maybe you have some examples?"

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "Well, it's not just common, but it's something about the typicality of the words themselves. Now I can give you examples but unfortunately this kind of typicality is very subtle. So I can say 'marble,' for instance, is a very typical noun in terms of its phonology whereas 'insect' is not. But if you just hear the two words, you're not really going to be sort of able to pick out which one is which. But, nonetheless, if you were to read this word on an experiment, you would read marble faster than you read insect."

RS: "Now does this have applications, could this be applied to learning of English as a foreign or second language?"

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "Well, actually we have a study that [is] currently being, in the process of being written up, where what we did was that we created new words, words that don't exist in English. So these are called non-words. And then we gave them to six- and seven- and eight-year-old kids and we asked them to essentially listen to one of these words. And then they would see two pictures, one of an action such as somebody throwing something or a picture of an object which could sort of be any object, such as a house or something. And we asked them to point to which one they thought the word referred to. Now this was done in the context of, we had a little puppet that was speaking a foreign language and they had to figure out what the puppet was trying to tell them."

AA: "And how did it turn out?"

MORTEN CHRISTIANSEN: "Well, it turned out that these six-, seven- and eight-year-olds were actually sensitive to what we call phonological typicality. That is, that there's something about the sounds of words that are typical of whether they are a noun or a verb. And they're sensitive to this such that, in particular for verb-like non-words, they were much more likely to choose the picture of the action than of the object."

RS: Morten Christiansen is a psychology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He concedes that the concept of "phonological typicality" may seem a little abstract. But he hopes this research will lead to a better understanding of how children and adults acquire language with the help of certain cues, like sound.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is If you're an English learner, or just interested in language, then visit our Web site at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.