Why is the word “meen” different from the word “glack”? A 1971 experiment showed that you will linger over the first and dismiss the second. But maybe it’s a bit more complicated.

If you think you’ve gotten over the practice of sounding words out, you’re probably wrong. Although people watching you read will see you read silently and without moving your lips, part of you is still sounding out the words.

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Scientists realized this in 1971 by getting volunteers to throw out the nonsense words that they saw. Participants were asked to decide if a word was real or if it was a pseudoword. While the volunteers quickly tossed out words like “blorb” or “reeko,” they lingered over words like “meen,” or “lern” or “brane.” These pseudohomophones make no more sense than any other nonsense word, but some part of us recognizes the sound and isn’t ready to dismiss it. It’s called the Pseudohomophone Effect. It should probably be called the sudohomofone effekt, but that might be too on the nose.

Subsequent research shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. One study showed that while people linger over pseudohomophones, they also hesitate in rejecting non-words that are visually similar to real words, but aren’t homophones—like “knile” and “knife.” Another showed that, if people are constantly shown a string of pseudo homophones, they become good at spotting them. Then they won’t hesitate at rejecting the pseudohomophones any more than they would any other nonsense word.

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In 1996, a group of scientists took a more detailed approach. They switched languages, from English to German, because German has a number of spelling patterns. Some were dominant, some used regularly but not often, and some almost never. Think of the sound “f” being spelled “f” in most words, “ph” in some word, and “gh” in a few words. The subjects were quick to reject pseudohomophones with dominant spelling, hesitated more with the normal spelling, and really hesitated with the rare spelling.

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However, the scientists also found something more: “There was no pseudohomophone effect for the fastest subjects. These more skilled readers can identify a pseudohomophone as a nonword without Interference from knowledge of the homophone. The bases for these subjects’ responses may include recognition that the pseudohomophone’s orthographic code is unfamiliar or the failure of this orthographic code to activate semantic information.”

This group concluded there are multiple ways to process a word. In some cases, the pseudohomophone gets checked out phonetically, making people sound it out internally and tricking people with its similarity to real words. In other cases, it just has to pass spell-check. Although the scientists believe that people who are fast decision makers could still be sounding the word out, the sound of the pseudohomophone doesn’t make an impact. What do you think?

Image: Wiki Commons