Why are some nonwords funny?

In psycholinguistics we often used nonwords to study different aspects of language processing. In the course of our work, we have noticed (as any reader of Dr. Seuss knows) that some nonwords seem inherently humorous. We have not been able to understand why this is, as the nonwords that seem funny to us do not seem obviously related to each other. We are undertaking this project to see if we can understand what makes a nonword funny. Please participate if you would like to.

Your participation is completely anonymous; however, we do store your IP address along with your responses for the sole purposes of identifying different responders. We will never try to identify you by this address. We will also ask your age, gender, educational level, and language background before you begin, so we can see if any of these factors influence responses. In case you share your computer with someone of exactly the same age, gender, and language background, we will also ask you to provide an identifying nickname, which may be any character string you choose.

We will show you a nonword with two buttons underneath it, labeled 'Funny.' or 'Not funny'. We ask you to simply click one button or the other, based on your 'gut instinct'. Do not feel you need to click each equally. The nonwords we will show you are randomly constructed and we expect that most of them will not seem at all funny.

We have also provided a field for you to comment on each letter string you see. Although your comments are optional, please feel free to let us know why you think a particular string is funny, or to make any other comments on the letter string that you may wish to convey to us.

Although you may continue for as long as you like and come back as often as you like, it will be most useful for us if we get fairly large samples from each person each time they participate. Please try to categorize as many words as you have time and patience for. You can stop whenever you want by simply closing the browser window. If you do come back another time, please try to use the same nickname. If you see nonwords you have already seen, please classify them again.

You will be asked to install a plug-in the first time that you participate. This plug-in runs the language, RevWeb, that we used to program this study. Please click 'Always allow' when it asks for permission, or else you will have to give it permission after every letter string. This is a commercially-produced plug-in that we believe to be safe to install and that we believe will do no harm to your computer. Our own software does not read from or write to your computer's disks: All stimuli and data are stored remotely. (This is the main reason there is a short lag between each stimulus.)

We have designed and believe our software to be completely safe. We have tested it to the best of our abilities. We offer it in good faith. However, because we rely on a third party programming environment and because many aspects of the web environment are out of our control, we cannot guarantee that our software will work as designed on your computer. Neither we nor the University of Alberta accept any responsibility for any adverse consequences you might experience as a result of participating in this study. Please proceed at your own risk.

This study has been approved by the Arts & Sciences Ethics Review Board at the University of Alberta.

If you consent to participate in this study, we thank you in advance. Please signal your consent and begin the experiment by clicking here.

If you have any questions, you can contact the researchers using the following addresses:

Gail Moroschan (gailm@ualberta.ca) & Chris Westbury (chrisw@ualberta.ca)
Department of Psychology
P220 Biological Sciences Building
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E9
If you love nonwords as much as we do and would like to create your own, you are welcome to download our free platform-independent (Java) software, LINGUA, which can create plausible nonwords among other features.