My current position as a postdoc in a lab that studies how children learn their native language affords me an unusual opportunity: I spend the better part of each workday trying to channel my inner toddler. Would I prefer the red background or the green background for this stimulus video? Is the hysterically laughing kitten—used to maximize infinitesimal attention spans—adorable, or is it terrifying? I’m fairly certain that my list of recent research expenditures (1 large purple ball, 1 small red ball, 56 felt zoo animals) is just a single Dora the Explorer DVD away from a typical three-year-old’s Christmas list.
One of the oddest parts of my job involves thinking, and thinking hard, about made-up words. Because I am interested in how children learn new words, my studies expose toddlers to words that they’ve never heard before and then observe their behavior to determine what they’ve learned. When they hear the word again, where do they look? What do they do, and how long will they do it? I must be absolutely sure that the children haven’t heard the word before they walk into our lab—the successful interpretation of my experiments depends upon it—so I use fake nouns and verbs, nouns and verbs that sound real, but not so real as to be confused with existing ones. (Sometimes I wish they were real. Would it really be so bad to go through life with a word for “to swing one’s arm around one’s head as if pretending to be a windmill?”)
What makes nouns and verbs sound real? According to psychologists Thomas Farmer, Morten Christiansen, and Padraic Monaghan, some nouns and verbs are perceived to be more nouny and verby than others. When Thomas Farmer and his colleagues considered more than 3,000 English nouns and verbs, they found that nouns have a different (but overlapping) set of probabilistic phonological features than do verbs. That is, when plotted in multidimensional “sound space” (where the dimensions are phonological features, as well as where these features occur within words), nouns tended to cluster with other nouns, and verbs tended to cluster with other verbs.
This finding could be interpreted as either groundbreaking or common sense. For more than a century, most philosophers and linguists have argued that, with the exception of onomatopoeias such as pop or beep or bzzzzz, the relationship between a word and its meaning is perfectly arbitrary. Certainly everyone can agree that nothing about the specific sounds c-a-t or d-o-g would allow someone to map the correct label to the correct critter.
But other scholars, long at home with a more subtle sound symbolism, wouldn’t be in the least surprised by these results. That the verbs glimmer, glisten, glow, gloss, glint, gleam and glitter share both gl- and numerous properties pertaining to light is probably not a coincidence. And it shouldn’t shock anyone to learn an English verb is likelier to end in –ed than would an English noun.
The authors also argue, perhaps more substantially, that being especially nouny or verby makes a word easier to process. We access those words more quickly than their less typical brethren: it takes participants less time to read these words aloud, either alone or in a sentence.
In my research with children, I usually bypass such analyses, useful as they might be, when selecting novel nouns and verbs. Like most acquisition researchers, I rely on something even better: what’s worked in the past. Successful words like wug and dax and kradding and lorping are promiscuously passed from professor to student and lab to lab. Wugs have even acquired a shared meaning among researchers (they look not unlike blue, wingless chicks). Kradding wugs and lorping daxes? In my reality, they’re far from novel. In the tiny world of language acquisition research, they’re practically clichés.
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