Hi again, everybody!
I turn here to another alleged phenomenon involving mysterious aspects of ‘normal’ language: ‘reversals’ and similar phenomena, including ‘Reverse Speech’ and special cases of ‘backward masking’.
Reverse Speech (henceforth RS) is a theory and an associated set of practices developed by David Oates and his followers. Oates, who has no background or qualifications in linguistics or other relevant subjects, is the ‘discoverer’ of RS. Oates began to develop his theory of RS in 1984, when he was managing a ‘half way house’ for ‘street kids’ in Berri, South Australia. He heard that an American evangelist was travelling through Australia preaching that rock and roll was ‘the Devil’s music’ and that if one played such music backwards one would hear strange, evil messages (see later). Oates found himself unable to refute these claims and eventually became convinced that backwards phrases existed not only in music lyrics (whether deliberately inserted or otherwise) but also in all human speech, and often quite spontaneously, with no deliberate insertion being required. He decided that these ‘reversals’ were systematic and of great significance; he and his then colleague Greg Albrecht produced the first book on RS. (Albrecht later claimed that Oates had ‘stolen’ his ideas.) Subsequently Oates produced a further book, and he and his followers have continued to publish on RS. By the mid-1990s there were many leaflets, articles and web-site entries produced by RS devotees, but many of these texts are naïvely expressed and argued, and the content is also rather repetitive.
Oates’ basic theory involves the claim that normal forward speech (henceforth FS), if heard in reverse, often yields short (1 2 seconds) sequences of intelligible syllables, at short intervals (often of only a few seconds). The RS sequences are supposedly accessed by simply recording a passage of FS and playing the tape in reverse. They represent genuine words or grammatically ‘correct’/normal phrases (normally in the same language as the FS; certainly in the language in which an adult speaker is thinking), mixed in amongst the ‘gibberish’ which one would expect to hear in reversed speech.
Oates believes that RS is another product of the important mental processes which generate normal FS. As the brain is constructing and delivering the sounds of speech, two messages are communicated simultaneously. One message (FS) is communicated forward and listeners hear and respond to it consciously, while the other (RS) is communicated in reverse and listeners hear and respond to it unconsciously. According to Oates, the existence of RS partly accounts for the apparent ability of human beings to obtain (sometimes) more information from a conversation or other interaction than is expressed in FS; in other words, it provides a physical basis for phenomena such as ‘intuition’ or ‘the sixth sense’. (Some of Oates’ supporters, such as Jim Stutt, argue that RS arose during the early history of Homo sapiens to compensate for the loss by most humans of active telepathic ability as language – in its FS form – became more important. (Compare the ideas of Julian Jaynes.)
Oates and his followers have applied the analysis of RS in various practical domains, some of them involving matters of great sensitivity and potential harm. If RS is not genuine, this work is valueless at best and quite possibly extremely damaging. The areas in question include child psychology, alleged cases of child molestation, other alleged criminal offences (this includes the ‘O. J. Simpson’ case) and the analysis and treatment of sexual and other personal problems and issues more generally. In addition, the RS enterprise has come to have an overtly commercial character. At one stage, one hour of tape analysis (typically involving much less than one hour of analysable tape) cost as much as $US125, or $US200 if performed by Oates himself.
As ever, detailed references on request. More on RS next time!