Sex of speaker may affect how we understand words

Nov 21 2013, 14:13 IST
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Sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identify words grammatically, say scientists. Sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identify words grammatically, say scientists.
SummaryLanguage with grammatical gender may be interpreted and understood differently among listeners.

Sex of a speaker may determine how quickly and accurately we understand words, a new study suggests.

The study from the University of Kansas suggests that depending on the sex of the speaker, language with grammatical gender may be interpreted and understood differently among listeners.

Scientists set up an experiment showing that the sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identified words grammatically that there was evidence that even higher-level processes are affected by the speaker.

Based on the fact that Spanish words have a grammatical gender - words ending in "o" are typically masculine and in "a" are typically feminine - the researchers showed that the sex of a speaker affected how fast and accurately listeners could identify a list of Spanish words as masculine or feminine.

When there was a mismatch between the sex of the speaker and the gender of the word, listeners slowed down in identifying the word grammatically and were less accurate.

Grammar and syntax have been thought for decades to be automatic and untouchable by other brain processes, said Michael Vitevitch, KU professor of psychology.

Everything else - the sex of the speaker, their dialect, etc - is stripped away as our brains process the sound signal of a word and store it as an abstract form.

This is the abstractionist model of how we store words in memory championed by well-known cognitive scientist, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and his followers.

An alternate school of thought conceives of our brains processing words using exemplars containing and indexing information about both the word and the speaker.

"Our study shows that all that other information does influence not just word recognition processing, but higher-level processes associated with grammar," said Vitevitch.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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