Snug as a Wug in a Rug
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“We’re talking about pure science that’s as important as outer space or the deep sea. We’re learning how human beings think.”
—Jean Berko Gleason
In the world of linguistics, Jean Berko Gleason is a huge rock star. She’s best known as the mother of the groundbreaking “wug test,” which demonstrated how children as young as four can internalize complex language rules (like forming plurals) — and apply these rules broadly, even to nonsense words (like “wug”) they’ve never encountered before. You can see how the test works in Nova’s ”Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers” segment above.
As Berko Gleason explains in her paper “Language Acquisition and Socialization,” the wug study proved that “children are not simply learning bits and pieces of the adult linguistic system but are constructing generative systems of their own and that this results not from adult instruction but from the children’s inborn grammatical capacity.” This finding was so huge that it forever changed the field of linguistics and even inspired some aspiring linguists to get wug tattoos.
The complexity of our “inborn grammatical capacity” is a distinguishing feature of our humanness. And yet, how this hard-wired capacity evolved in our brains is a scientific riddle that hasn’t been neatly resolved. The great mysteries of the universe don’t just reside in the cosmos, they reside within us.