Monday, September 24, 2007

I frass, you frass, he frasses, they frass

A couple of weeks ago, Sara and I were talking, as you do, about the word 'frass', which is the technical term for insect poo.

She said it sounded more like a verb than a noun. It hadn't occurred to me that different types of word sounded different, and I wondered whether they did.

Well, they do. I was chatting with some researchers on Friday, and they mentioned work by Morten Christiansen at Cornell and his colleagues on just this topic. Last year, they published a paper showing that nouns and verbs do cluster together in phonological space.

But the categories aren't rigid. There are 'nouny nouns', which are found in the middle of noun space, but also 'verby nouns' which are closer to verbs. Likewise, there are verby verbs and nouny verbs.

The team did experiments showing that people process nouny nouns more quickly than verby nouns. For example, they are quicker to grasp the meaning of:
The curious young boy saved the marble that he found on the playground.

The curious young boy saved the insect that he found in his backyard.

because 'marble' is a nouny noun, whereas 'insect' is more verby.
The same difference was shown between sentences containing verby verbs, such as 'amuse' and nouny verbs, such as 'ignore'.

Last year's paper cites earlier studies showing that 'adults are more likely to use a nonsense word as a noun when it is multisyllabic'. So I would guess that 'frass' would fall amid the verby nouns.

Christiansen et al argue that these cateogries exist in other languages besides english, and suggest that learning these categories is one of the steps in acquiring language.

From idle speculation to scientific resolution - just how I like it.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

marble is also, in fact, a verb, whereas insect is not...