Lexical Decision Tasks have been used in psycholinguistics for long. It basically asks the participant if the word shown is meaningful (e.g. GIRL) or not (e.g. GISL) (ref: link).

But does a test like that exist to help with native phonology judgements? i.e. Is this word natural (?) to you (e.g. SKIT) or not (e.g. ITSK)

Background: I am trying to find out if one can construct a Nonword (semantically void, but phonologically perfect for a native - link) Judgement task. This is because I want to test if the list of Nonwords (like here) that I have generated (not in English), have enough 'nonwordiness', to be used in a psycholinguistic experiment.


P.S. I am not looking for Repetition tasks, which has a lot of problems as it is speech based and also depends on how much a user thinks a word can be pronounced.

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    Are you planning to present the word as text or as sound? Text has the additional difficulty (in English especially) of mixing in orthographic rules on top of the phonological ones: someone who's never seen these words before would probably say "Czech" is invalid but "check" is perfectly fine, even though they're phonologically identical in standard English.
    – Draconis
    Sep 15, 2020 at 23:55
  • @Draconis oh nice, sorry didnt mention, this is in Devanagari script and Hindi language to begin with (will proceed with more Indian Languages eventually) and it has a more direct orthography to pronunciation mapping than English etc. Sep 16, 2020 at 13:26
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    Oh, my. Well, if you're studying sound organization, using visual stimuli is guaranteed to introduce unnecessary complexities. And using an abugida system like Devanagari has questionable comparability with alphabetic systems. Plus everybody makes their own correlations between what they read and what they hear.
    – jlawler
    Sep 16, 2020 at 17:31
  • @jlawler yeah there would be increased complexity to an extent, but tasks for Hindi literacy/ readability/ comprehension and some other psycholinguistic ones (especially all Indian Aphasia Battery designs so far) have been in text. So for near future, I think that the judgement/ finding the "nonwordiness" of the word task could be kept in the same format, as we progress, maybe we can go to a better, speech based test. Sep 16, 2020 at 17:53

1 Answer 1


There is a computational metric which gives you the "distance" (in phonological features) between an arbitrary test string and all other words of English (it requires a phonetic dictionary of English). The original idea was that [bnzk, bnɪk, blɪk] are not English words, and [brɪk] is; but in the non-word set, [bnzk] is the least word-like, [bnɪk] is next most-word like; [blɪk] is a possible word, although it isn't an actual word. As far as I know there is no empirical underpinning whatsoever to the metric, that is, it hasn't been tested to see if there is any psychological reality to the metric, and the original form of the test is not actually computeable (d'oh!).

The usual alternative is a simple yes/no intuition test, i.e. "is [flæmp] a possible word of English?". This seems to be the test that you are looking for. The test is widely employed by phonologists, generally using themselves as test subjects. The method underlies decades of research on syllable-construction rules, where the goal is to capture the generalization that [flæmp] is a possible word even though it is not a word, but [flimp] (with a tense / long vowel) is not even a possible word. There are numerous border skirmishes involving marginal, Yinglish and anomalous words (sphere, Zbigniew, shpritz, pueblo), but there is a clear set of impossible words, and a somewhat clear set of possible non-existent words. The patterns were discussed in the literature on autosegmental theories of syllabification. If you go with standard phonologists' judgments of possible vs. impossible words, that gives you [bnɪk,bnzk] as not-possible and [blɪk, brɪk] as possible.

Here is where it's not clear what you want. Do you want to exclude just [bnɪk, bnzk]; or [bnɪk, bnzk, Zbigniew]; or [bnɪk, bnzk, Zbigniew, pueblo]...? The problem is that "possible" as opposed to "actual" is about a system of rules. We cannot directly verify what the rules are, so we substitute speaker feelings about words to fine-tune what the rules must be. So we have to separate the speakers (and their intuitions) used to construct the rules from the test subjects used to test this possible / impossible distinction (assuming that those subjects can accept "possible but non-existent" as different from "impossible and non-existent").

Since we are in the realm of the little-explored, the domain is ripe for pilot experiments. For example, if you give Hindi speakers a Sanskrit text, "how Hindi" are the words judged to be (controlling for actual knowledge of Sanskrit) – maybe just giving uninflected roots? Same with Bengali, Sindhi, Dogri or Sinhalese – in Devanagari. And likewise Tamil or Telugu; or Pashto; or Khmer; or Dinka. The segmental inventory of Dinka is so different that you would face serious spelling problems (vowel phonation, tone, diphthongs). I think I could distinguish a Tamil Devanagari corpus from a Hindi Devanagari corpus (having only a superficial linguist's knowledge of either) based on the "appearance" of Tamil, provided you could come up with a consistent scheme for converting தமிழ் அரிச்சுவடி to देवनागरी (dealing with the extra vowel and consonant letters). I don't think that [māṭu] violates any strong phonotactics of Hindi (cf. जाति [jāti]), which I suppose is a tadbhava word so not "really" Hindi). My conjecture is that after eliminating the Tamil e/ē (etc.) contrast, admissible Tamil strings are technically a proper subset of admissible Hindi strings, but if you did a statistical study of words, the majority of Tamil words have a different phonotactic pattern (more syllables, severe coda restrictions) from that of Hindi (fewer syllables, fewer polysyllabic V-final words), which could influence judgments of Hindi-ness.

  • ok it does makes sense that there are exceptional words in languages which borrow a lot. Even if they don't you can have those kinds creep in. But since the test is for aphasics/ similar special abilities, remaining in the domain of 'generally acceptable' words is fine. The other part was relating to rules, yeah it is difficult to exhaustively list out all phonological rules. So the final possibility that you are suggesting is a yes/ no test then? (also thanks for pointing out the metric in the beginning, makes for a complete answer!) Sep 16, 2020 at 13:24
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    I think a possible / impossible test would be most doable. Since this is Hindi, the question "how Hindi?" will be prominent. You might transliterate a set of Tamil words and see how they are judged. M. Ohala may be helpful: internationalphoneticassociation.org/icphs-proceedings/…, since she approaches the question experimentally.
    – user6726
    Sep 16, 2020 at 15:33
  • yeah i think that is the only way out now, biggest problem is that: 1) how do i explain what "how hindi" implies if someone cant imagine themselves 2) for possible/ impossible, usually impossible is a far stretch, people are not willing to take, so making a scale is a possible alternative (but really dont know any experiment that confirms these methods for the task i have to do). Just to clarify, are you bringing in Tamil, as a non Hindi language? and, will read the paper for sure! Sep 16, 2020 at 17:39
  • the edit makes a lot of sense. Though we would then have to control for Urdu too, a lot of borrowing, direct implications like /f/ and /z/ to indirect ones like /rokā/ or /maukā/ etc. What do you mean by "uninflected roots"? are you pointing to only the lexically valid parts of the test? if not, then how would a stemmed nonword make a difference? Sep 16, 2020 at 19:00

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