Taking this Simple "Wug Test" Reveals a Lot About Your Brain

This is a wug. I thought it was lonely, and so I got it a cute companion. So, I had one wug, and now I have two [...] Please fill in the last word of that sentence. Go ahead and say it out loud. What you just pronounced reveals a lot about how the brain deals with new words.

Pseudowords and Wug Words

Almost all of you will have gotten the plural right on that sentence. Even four-year-olds, tested by the famous psychologist Jean Berko Gleason, got the plural of "wug" right. If you're a native English speaker, you will have gotten the word right so quickly, and unconsciously, that you won't have noticed doing a subtle thing.


The written plural of wug is wugs, with an "s." The spoken plural of wug is "wugz," with a "z" sound. Toddlers will say, "two wug." Slightly older children will sometimes follow the more general sound for plural words and say "two wugssss." Only when they have enough experience with English words will they unconsciously know that when a word ends in "g," like dog or hug, the plural takes a "z" sound.

This illustrates why so many people have difficulty learning a second language. English is notorious for its dirty tricks, but every language has internal inconsistencies that are frustrating to memorize, but picked up effortlessly through experience. There is a flip side to this. People who memorize a language notice these inconsistencies. People who pick it up don't - which is why wug words take effort to construct.

The Rules for Wugs

Pseudowords require thought for the researcher because they are supposed to require absolutely no thought for the reader. They are meant to contain only the clear spelling of recognizable sounds in the reader's native language. So, for example, "ninsecz" would not work as an English wug word, while "noonent" would. The ultimate aim of wug words is to allow the reader not only to read them but work with them. So if I asked you to construct a sentence that describes a boat which floated by in a manner which was noonent, you should be able to instantly say, "The boat floated by noonently." If I asked you to conjugate the verb, "to feem," you should be able to say, "I feem. He feems. I feemed. He feemed."


It gets trickier when you have to pick pseudowords that mean nothing, but edge close to unusual grammatical rules. It's easy enough to make up wug words for regular English verbs like, "depend," or "grin." How well would you be able to come up with a pseudoword that made people unconsciously conjugate it the way they would, "catch" or "abide"?

These days, there are whole programs that come up with wug words for different purposes and different languages. That may take the pressure off researchers, but it leaves us curious. If any readers have dealt with wug words - especially wug words in languages other than English - please let us know your experiences!


Top Image: JNL

[Via The Usefulness of Pseudowords, Wuggy.]


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