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What Is a Pseudoword?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory

All languages permit certain sounds and sound combinations and restrict other possible sounds that might be quite common in another language. These sounds, called phonemes, are a relatively small set of all possible sounds the human mouth, palate, tongue, and lungs can create; for example English uses only 40 phonemes in total. A pseudoword is one that could exist in a language in that all of its sounds and combinations are permitted, but it has no meaning whatsoever.

In a pseudoword, not only are the sounds found in other words in that language, but the pseudoword can be written using only the symbols of that language. Pseudowords can help to teach linguistic and grammatical rules. For example, student could practice conjugating the pseudoverb blurk as “I blurk, you blurk, he blurks, we blurk, they blurk,” and the past tense would be “blurked.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Children love the novelty of a good pseudoword, particularly those that have an oddly delightful cadence or combination of sounds. These can also help teach affixes. One example could begin with the pseudoword, piggle. Regardless of the word's meaning or lack thereof, the prefix un would transform the ostensible definition to its opposite. Adding the suffix less to the ending, transforms the pseudoword again to unpiggleless, which according to the rules of logic, would mean the absence of an unpiggle, which would logically mean the presence of a piggle.

Pseudowords are not to be confused with nonwords. In linguistic terms, a nonword is not only a lexical unit that doesn’t exist in a particular language, but it also could not possibly exist because some or all of its phonemes are restricted. An example of a nonword is pguqsh, which is unpronounceable in English. Young learners love nonwords almost as much as pseudowords and often demonstrate how well they’ve unconsciously internalized linguistic rules by insisting certain letters are silent. Pguqsh, for example, could have a silent P, a silent g, a silent pg cluster, and a silent q.

Pseudowords, also called logatomes, do not suggest any sort of meaning. Their cousins, nonce words, are also linguistically correct constructions but contain the shade or suggestion of a meaning. This may be because they are so similar in sound to another word or because they were coined to represent a meaning that preexists a concept that has no name. For example, James Joyce created the word quark, which appeared in Finnegan’s Wake. When science discovered a certain type of electrically charged particle, a fan of Joyce borrowed the nonce quark and reassigned its meaning.

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