The First SAT Tested Students Using a Fake Language

"Please" = "thanto." "Will please" = "belthanto." "Pleased" = "erpthanto."
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It was a big year, 1926. Robert Goddard launched the first rocket. Pontiac cars were introduced by General Motors. Winnie-the-Pooh was published. And for the first time, the College Board administered a standardized test that would come to live in dreams and nightmares as the SAT.

Yep, the Scholastic Aptitude Test: bane of high school students for 87 years and counting.

The old-timey SAT was similar only in the broadest sense to the test we know today. It gave students both multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. It was first administered to 8,040 candidates -- 60 percent (hey, only 60 percent!) of whom were male. It consisted of 315 questions, which students had 97 minutes to answer. 

And while today's SAT has three core sections (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing), the SAT of 1926 had nine sub-tests, seven devoted to verbal skills and two devoted to math: Word Definitions, Arithmetical Problems, Word Classification, Antonyms, Number Series, Analogies, Logical Inference, Paragraph Reading, and Artificial Language.

You read that right: Artificial Language. And this section was, it turns out, fantastically literal. The writers of that first SAT actually constructed a fake language for students to translate during their 97 minutes of aptitude-testing. The trial tongue is unnamed, alas, yet distinctly Esperanto-esque. 

Here are the language's grammar rules, via Smithsonian Magazine, from the 1926 version of the test:

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 5.02.59 PM.png Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 5.03.19 PM.png

[Editor's note: Erpthanto? More like derpthanto, AMIRITE?]

As for the test questions based on those rules, they may be, sadly, lost to history. (The page above, along with a few others, was all the College Board could provide of its ur-SAT.) Still, the College Board's faux-netic language is a testament to how drastically educational priorities can change over time. In a world that increasingly emphasizes students' technical abilities, we take it for granted that math and verbal skills -- reasoning and communication -- should share the stage with each other. 1926, though, was a different time, with different educational goals.

Which didn't mean that the whole made-up language thing wasn't a little bit weird, even in 1926. Brian O'Reilly, a 31-year veteran of the College Board, told Smithsonian Magazine that the SAT's Artificial Language section was similar to a test he had to take when applying for the Peace Corps in 1967. And that kind of translational testing made sense for a program that would likely require participants to quickly learn new languages. On the SAT, though? There, O'Reilly said, "it is hard to know what the purpose of this was."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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