Thursday, 16 April 2009

Eating a BLT at the BBC - we love our acronyms but are they really words?

Here in the UK we love our acronyms. Whether we're watching the BBC, proud of the RAF, donating to the RSPCA, or taking the car in for its MOT, Marc Brysbaert and colleagues observe in their new study that the sheer number of acronyms can be overwhelming for foreigners visiting the country. Such practicalities aside, acronyms represent a further curiosity for psychologists studying language because they seem to be treated by fluent speakers as if they are words and yet they break all the orthographic rules of the language. Consider the BBC - no proper words in English lack a vowel, start with BB, or end with BC.

To test whether acronyms really are treated like words, Brysbaert's team used a procedure known as "masked associative priming". This is the finding that a target word is recognised more quickly as a word if it is preceded by a subliminally presented (i.e. one presented too quickly to be consciously seen) word with a related meaning. For example, asked to say as quickly as possible whether "toad" is a real word or not, participants will be much quicker to respond if "toad" was preceded by subliminal presentation of "frog".

For this experiment, Brysbaert and his colleagues used acronyms in an associative priming task and found that, just like words, they too exert a priming effect. Twenty-four participants were faster to recognise a string of letters as a real word when it was preceded by a related acronym - for example, "sandwich" preceded by subliminal presentation of "BLT" (which stands for bacon, lettuce and tomato). The effect shows that the meaning of the acronyms was decoded rapidly, without conscious awareness, just as happens with prime words. What's more, the effect was found whether acronyms were shown as all capitals, as they are normally encountered, or in a mix of lower and upper case, further showing that they really do seem to be treated like proper words.

"Whether this may be interpreted as an encouragement to further increase the number of acronyms in the English language is a different matter that cannot be addressed on the basis of the present data," the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBrysbaert, M., Speybroeck, S., & Vanderelst, D. (2009). Is there room for the BBC in the mental lexicon? On the recognition of acronyms. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802585471

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

BBC and BLT are not acronyms - they are abbreviations. Radar and scuba and Aids are acronyms - i.e. words formed from the initial letters of the phrase which describes what they are, and which are pronounced as they are spelled and not merely as a string of letters.

Unknown said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for your note. The study authors do not agree with you. This is from the their text: "A search through the internet (see in particular, retrieved on 15 August 2008) suggests that although abbreviations have been around for a long time (think of AD and BC), the surge in their usage is a typical 20th-century phenomenon. Abbreviations consisting of the first letters of a fixed expression are usually called acronyms. Originally, this name was limited to abbreviations with orthographically legal letter sequences that could be pronounced (such as NATO, VOSA, HOMER), whereas illegal letter sequences (DVLA, RSPCA) were called initialisms. Gradually, however, the term acronym came to be used to denote all letter sequences consisting of initial letters."

Anonymous said...

Which perhaps goes to show that academics should not place too much reliance on what they read on Wikipedia! The word 'acronym' was first recognized by the OED in 1943; definition: 'a word formed from the initial letters of other words, as ANZAC, LAZER'. My most up-to-date English dictionary (Chambers, 1998) contains a similar definition ('a word formed from or based on the initial letters or syllables of other words, such as radar').

I'm not sure how 'gradual' that could make the change of usage . . .

Unknown said...

Whilst I would agree that it is wise to read Wikipedia entries with some caution, the entry cited by the study authors is well-referenced. Here are the relevant references for your particularly query:

* "acronym." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, accessed May 2, 2006: "a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also: an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters: see initialism "

* a b Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55985-5. p. 120: Its encyclopedic entry for Abbreviation contains an inset entitled "Types of Abbreviation," which lists Initialisms, followed by Acronyms, which he describes simply as "Initialisms which are pronounced as single words" but then adds "However, some linguists do not recognize a sharp distinction between acronyms and initialisms, but use the former term for both."

* "acronym". Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2003), Barnes & Noble. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2. "1. a word created from the first letter or letters of each word in a series of words or a phrase. 2. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation."

Of course the whole point of the study was to test the idea that acronyms of the initialism variety are actually treated as "words" despite the fact that they disobey orthographic rules and therefore can't be pronounced as words. The findings (together with past research not described in the Digest report above) suggest that they are indeed treated by people as "words".

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