The New Yorker:
Writers and language geeks inherit a ranking system of sorts: verbs good, adjectives bad, nouns sadly unavoidable. Verbs are action, verve! “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me into verb, pure verb,” Seamus Heaney writes, in “Oysters.” A sentence can be a sentence without nouns or adjectives, but never without a verb. For the most part.
But nouns deserve more cognitive credit. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that nouns actually take longer to spit out than verbs do, presumably because they require more thought to produce. In the study, researchers led by Frank Seifart, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam, and Balthasar Bickel, of the University of Zurich, analyzed hundreds of recordings of spontaneous speech from nine very different languages from around the world: English and Dutch, as well as several others from as far afield as Amazonia, Siberia, the Kalahari, and Tibet. They picked out and compared the spoken renditions of the nouns and verbs, focussing not on how long it took for each word to be spoken but on what was happening in the half-second preceding each word. That tiny window is informative: cognitive scientists have concluded that it takes the brain about that long to formulate its next word, which happens even as a current word or phrase is being spoken.
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