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.
Brysbaert, 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