Friday, June 12, 2009

Why are tehse wdors esay to raed?

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryonePenrose triangle
I was introduced to a fascinating phenomenon in 2002. Someone had pinned a note on the staff notice-board. My first thought on reading it was taht the tpysit had faleid to use the slelpckehcer. But the wolhe dumconet was wtirten lkie tihs.

It went on to explain that most people could read and make sense of writing, despite
jemubld ltertes in wrdos. As long as the frsit and lsat letter of each word did not sfiht their position, trehe was litlte preblom.

Text of this sort was not new to me. I was familiar with the writing of dyslexic students who were adept at constructing words, phrases and sentences like those shown here.

Jumbled-letter word messages caused a swell of activity in emails and on blogs at that time. Recognition
was facile for jumbled-words that were correctly positioned in text. More so than the cognitive gymnastics needed to make sense of text where the positions of correctly spelt words were jumbled in the same sentence.

The phrase, ‘too sense to muddled any make’, may demonstrate this.


Speculation arose as to why most readers found it easy to make sense of jumbled-word texts. There then followed a flurry of research as academics looked into the psychology of the phenomenon. The term ‘jumbled-word effect’ was introduced.

One of the initial proposals was that the first and last letters were important to the recognition of words. Soon it was revealed that the first and last letters were not especially the ones used when recognising and reading jumbled-words in text. Further to this, particular words with their interior letters muddled in special ways were identified as being difficult to decipher.

When carefully disarranged words are chosen it is possible to construct sentences that are arduous to understand, as in the example:

A dootcr aimttded magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur.

More recent postings on blogs have perpetuated the ongoing debate about the phenomenon.

Other languages

Interest in the psychology of reading was stimulated by these curious observations, so much so that programs were created to jumble the interiors of words in texts, expressly for the purpose of creating material for use in further research. As well, investigations were conducted on possible occurrences of the phenomenon in other written languages.

Some findings are posted by Matt David of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. It seems that vowels, and their juxtaposition to consonants within the jumble, have some bearing on the readability of words. C
ompared to other languages, significantly fewer vowels than consonants are involved in the makeup of words in the Hebrew language.

Apparently Hebrew writing is rendered quite unreadable when the interior letters of its words are scrambled. This suggests that the presence of vowels and their position in the jumble of letters may indeed have some role in affecting ease of recognition of jumbled-words.

Ordered letter pairs

At the University of Maryland, Jonathan Grainger and Carol Whitney drew on the work of earlier researchers. They proposed that recognition of jumbled-words was sustained by what they referred to as ‘ordered letter pairs’ or ‘open bigrams’. The mind seems to latch on to particular letter combinations when recognising a jumbled-word.

A less academic perspective by The Escapist claims that the context of a word in text is more likely to assist its recognition than does the arrangement of the letters that make it up.

This is a plausible idea if the sentence or phrase,
rather than the single word, is considered as the unit of meaning. How often has a typo, where letters of a word are accidentally jumbled, escaped the eye of even the most scrupulous proof reader, by virtue of the meaning of the misspelt word being subsumed in the rest of the text?

Perhaps the mind uses a range of indicators in attempting to interpret meaning from jumbled-words in texts.

Who kwons?
Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes


Hebrew Student said...

You mention that Hebrew becomes unreadable when the vowels are scrambled. This is because the letters (consonants) of a Hebrew word define the basic root meaning of the word, but the vowels follow systematic patterns to say whether this is a noun, adjective, verb in various forms (passive, active, which form of the verb such as piel, hiphil etc.). So by scrambling the vowels, a Hebrew (or Arabic, for that matter) word could become unintelligible, or have a completely different meaning.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai!
Kia ora Hebrew Student!

Thank you for this elucidation. What you have shown me is that my original assumption of the role of the vowel (in other languages such as English) cannot be linked to the difficulty encountered with the Hebrew language, since vowels serve quite a different purpose in Hebrew words.

I was not aware of this important feature of the Hebrew language. This is very useful to keep in mind and I thank you for your valuable input.

Vowels have a role in forming the sound of syllables in English. Though they are also often silent in some words, they rarely serve any useful function in those positions.

Thanks for dropping by.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

I would be interested to see research in which a non native speaker reads the jumbled words. I think this also has something to do with pattern recognition. As the Hebrew Student pointed out, certain patterns in languages are markers for grammar (how the language is used) and others are used for word meaning. I wonder, for example, if German, which has such strict work placement rules (word order helps to identify how a word is working within a sentence) falls into this. Also, slavic languages, like Hebrew, have changes within the word depending which indicate gender, verb tense, and which word groups go together.

Recently, there has a been research in the communication field on truncated speech which is the result of texting.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

Sorry for taking so long to reply to your comment - I have some interesting information for you.

My poor German speaking colleague was sick for a few days so I could not ask her if she could read German text with scrambled words (I got the scrambled German text from Matt David's site). Inka's observation is that she found both the scrambled German text and the scrambled English text both quite easy to read.

I have approached a Spanish speaking colleague and asked the same question about the Spanish text. Carlos is yet to get back to me - I'll let you know.

Catchya later

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia!

I am now able to report that Carlos, a Mexican from Panama, who is also a senior teacher of Spanish language, can read the scrambled Spanish just as easily as he can read the scrambled English.

What it is to have so many English speaking colleagues who are native to other countries!

ngā mihi nui

WDORS said...

Right back at cha

avatara said...

Hi Ken,
I found your blog by searching "jumbled words". I'd come across them before in people's profiles but never looked into it, then saw it again the other day on the promo reel at
I've enjoyed reading through your blog - though provoking and more. BTW, do you compose as a hobby or...(?)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Avatara!

I have played music on string instruments for many decades. My first instrument was the violin. I then took up the guitar and eventually the mandolin.

I started composing as a child of about 10 or 11 years. Since then, on and off, I've put down the notes for tunes that came through my head - maybe about a dozen or so, all of them with a Celtic influence. They come to me completely unconsciously, with no real intention of me composing in that genre.

But when my son was to be married in 2007, I made a conscious effort to compose for his bride.

Glad you dropped by!

Catchya later