A Funny Thing Happens When Typing Polysyllabic Words

Over the holidays I’ve been emptying my digital pockets and finding all sorts of fun nick-nacks. In particular, Jessie Daniels describes how to be a scholar now, when peer-reviewed articles can begin as Tweets and blog posts. Taking up her clarion call, I thought I’d give it a shot.

[Warning: These findings are minimal and preliminary. A much more thorough analysis needs to be done, and many many more statistical tests need to be run.]

I’ve been meaning to study variation in language production, specifically on a word-by-word basis. For example, how does one typist or one population of typists produce the word giraffe versus another typist or population of typists?

I took a few polysyllabic words from the word list used by Molly Lewis & Michael C. Frank in their recent paper The length of words reflects their conceptual complexityand measured the pause times (intervals) before each letter. Here are the results:


The first thing to note is that pauses before a word are much longer than pauses within a word. This finding is well-established, though.

More interesting (to me, at least) is what happens at syllable boundaries. In the two compound words because and someone, the pause at the syllable boundary is more pronounced. An unpaired t-test shows a significant difference in pause times between syllable-liminal and syllable-internal pause times (< 0.01), whereas differences between other syllable-internal pauses are not significant.

In typing research, a more pronounced pause time indicates “more cognition” is happening. There is some process, such as downloading a word into the lexical buffer, that causes a slowdown in figuring out which key to strike next. It is possible that we are observing a phenomenon where lexical retrieval occurs at the syllable level when a word is made up of multiple words, even if those words do not “compose” the compound word.

Specifically, the word someone can reasonably be decomposed into someone. It might make sense that someone is downloaded syllable-by-syllable, and we see that delay in typing as the next word/syllable is retrieved.

More surprisingly, though, we do not think of because as being composed of because, even though these are two perfectly good words. Nonetheless, we see _something_ happening when the next word/syllable is retrieved.

None of these delays, though, are observed in the words people and about, although I supposed aboutbout.

tl;dr: Something fun is going on with multisyllabic, compound words. It needs a lot more investigation, and I plan on doing just that over the holidays.