reversals & such 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 22)

Hi again, everybody! Yet more on Reverse Speech!

Further implausible, incoherent and/or suspect aspects of the RS theory and Oates’ material include the following:

1) RS should only occasionally yield phonologically/phonetically possible sequences, even in the same language. There will be even fewer cases where the reversed sequence is not only possible but corresponds with a meaningful sequence of morphemes. One example is a reversal of any word terminating in /-r/ followed by the word honesty; in an American accent, this yields a close approximation to the phrase it’s an honour. However, this reversal will, obviously, occur on all occasions when the FS sequence is produced; it does not depend upon the feelings, knowledge etc. of the speaker. The shorter elements commonly reported in alleged reversals are simply the reversed forms of common words or word-parts, although in fact the resemblance is often much weaker than in the above case. For instance, one of Oates’ favourite RS metaphors is that of the ‘wolf’; but the RS word wolf is in fact an inaccurate reformulation of the reversed forms of four, for, etc.

2) Oates lists six ‘guidelines’ or ‘criteria’ on which he claims to rely in determining whether or not a given sequence in reversed speech actually counts as a case of genuine RS. However, most of his leading examples do not meet these six criteria successfully. Indeed, some of the criteria are based on errors as to linguistic facts, and are thus most unlikely to be met:

a) The syllable counts for FS and RS should be identical. This criterion is frequently not met.

b) There should be audible spaces between words in RS. This criterion is invalid: there are not usually any spaces of this kind between words in FS, only potential pauses. Furthermore, such spaces appear to be rare in alleged RS sequences also.

c) The beginnings and ends of the words in RS should be clearly defined. The same objection may be made here as under b).

d) The vowel sounds in RS should be clear and precise. The precise sense of this criterion is unclear.

e) The reversal should be distinct from surrounding ‘gibberish’. The same objection may be made here as under b) (above); but, to the extent that this kind of judgment is possible, the criterion is frequently not met, because the reversal itself is often unclear.

f) The RS phrase should have a ‘continuous, melodious tonal flow’. The sense of this criterion is unclear.

When apprised of these criticisms, Oates argued that RS is so different from FS that objections based on the workings of FS are irrelevant. This idea raises serious methodological issues, but it would allow Oates to claim that criteria b) and c) apply to RS even though they do not apply to FS. However, he at no point makes this explicit; and, given that most non-linguists, relying (as Oates himself does) largely upon spelling, would probably imagine that FS displays these features, it appears likely that Oates originally attributed them to RS because he too believes (or believed) that they apply to FS.

3) Oates claims that very young children begin to produce coherent RS, and, indeed, that they acquire RS well before they acquire FS, in fact as early as the ‘babbling’ stage, in the middle of their first year of life. These claims appear utterly implausible in view of what is known about child language acquisition.

4) Oates’ treatment of phonetics and phonology, including intonation, is superficial, vague, folk-linguistic and inaccurate. He also adopts a naïvely folk-linguistic, prescriptivist approach to the issue of grammaticality and accepts some other folk-linguistic ideas, apparently believing for instance that Sanskrit was the Ursprache (see my 2012 blogs here on ‘fringe’ historical linguistics).

5) In his print and video material, Oates repeatedly prompts listeners with full versions of what he claims they should expect to hear. As work with ‘backward masking’ and replications of Oates’ experiments (see later) demonstrate, this practice is highly suspect. See also earlier on Oates’ inconsistency on this issue.

6) Oates pays little attention to the findings of mainstream psychology, but develops complex, poorly-supported psychological theories, notably on the role of the metaphors he ‘finds’ in RS. Many of the concepts which he associates with RS are in fact of a ‘New Age’ or ‘fringe’ nature.

Along with Jane Curtain, I myself investigated the RS theory in 1997. Details next time!

As ever, detailed references on request.


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