“What we have shown is that the sound of a word can tell us something about how it is used,” said Morten Christiansen, associate professor of psychology at Cornell University. “Specifically, it tells us whether the word is used as a noun or as a verb, and this relationship affects how we process such words.”
However, if you are mouthing a whole bunch of nouns or verbs and listening for a similar sound in each group, you're out of luck. "It's not a particular sound," Christiansen said. "It's much more subtle than that."
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.
In one experiment, the researchers asked Cornell undergraduate volunteers to read sentences with noun-verb homonyms -- word-forms that can be used both as a noun and as a verb. For example, "hunts" can be used as a plural noun ("the bear hunts were terrible") or as a verb ("the bear hunts for food"). In two other experiments, words that normally only occur either as a noun or as a verb were used. For example, "marble" and "insect" are almost always used as nouns, while "await" and "bury" are almost always used as verbs.
In all experiments, subjects read sentences on a computer screen, one word at a time, and the time spent reading each word was recorded. The researchers found that adults use the relationship between how words sound and how they are used to guide their comprehension of sentences.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."
The volunteers used the relationship between how words sound and how they are used to guide their comprehension of sentences.