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The Wug Revolution

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Today’s guest blogger is Brian L. Cansler, a linguistics student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As most people familiar with Jean Berko Gleason’s work know, the correct answer to the question in the image caption would usually be “Wugs,” pronounced with a final [z] sound. In this case, however, there’s something special about these particular Wugs. Does the picture give it away?

The first Wug is permanently tattooed on my forearm, and the second Wug is tattooed on my friend Halley’s wrist. As you can imagine, she and I would fill in that blank a bit differently. For us and for countless other linguists around the world, Jean single-handedly created the patron saint of linguistics: the irresistibly cute Wug. (As an aside, not all linguists are branded for life with a Wug. We’re just a bit…enthusiastically dedicated.)

Throughout the entirety of her career, Jean has been making great strides in the fields of linguistics and psychology, and she’s one of the key figures who has helped bridge the gap between the two disciplines. As you’ve surely heard by now, Jean is no stranger to speed; this is mirrored in her fast-paced career. She published a paper early in her career that helped catapult her as close to academic stardom as one could hope to be fresh out of grad school: “The Child’s Learning of English Morphology,” better known as Berko 1958. It was with this paper that Jean undeniably revolutionized the study of language acquisition.

Jean’s Wug test was the first to prove that young children analyze the words around them with innate mental structures and, as if by magic, find complicated rules in this chaotic mess—and actually understand them! This was one of those monumental discoveries that laid the foundation for the modern study of linguistics.

Well, that, and it gave linguists everywhere a common motto to rally under: “This is a Wug.”

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.