reversals & such 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 20)

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!

Mark

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8 Responses to reversals & such 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 20)

  1. […] An article has been published in the ‘Skeptical Humanities’ web site asserting that I have claimed that David Oates stole my ideas, presumably after we wrote ‘Beyond Backward Masking.’ Skeptical Humanities. […]

  2. marknewbrook says:

    I will be responding to this, but I am consulting Jane Curtain first, Mark N

  3. marknewbrook says:

    I have not yet heard back from Jane Curtain, but I will provisionally post my own comments.

    I am sorry if this statement about Greg Albrecht and David Oates which Jane Curtain and I made (in my book Strange Linguistics and in follow-up pieces such as my Skeptical Humanities blog) was inaccurate. I will confer with Jane when I hear back from her, but she is a very careful reporter of what is said to her, and I can only conclude that there was a genuine misunderstanding. If that is the case I am happy to withdraw the statement, and if my book is re-printed I will omit the sentence in question.

    Naturally Jane and I are aware of the nature of collaborative research, and we acknowledged this in referring to Greg and David Oates as colleagues.

    Our comments about the commercial nature of RS relate to the fact that RS is a theory and a set of associated practices which have not been accepted in the relevant mainstream disciplines (psychology, linguistics, etc.) – in my view, for good reason. In contrast, universities teach ideas which ARE accepted in the relevant disciplines, and they are constrained to charge appropriately for this teaching (although they do not seek to behave like commercial companies in this respect).

    There would obviously be plenty for me to discuss in my book even if RS did not exist. And the price of my book is fixed by the academic publisher (taking into account production costs, etc.), not by me. I am happy to offer seriously interested readers a copy of my book at the author’s 50% discount.

    Mark N

  4. marknewbrook says:

    I have now heard back from Jane Curtain. We stand by my comments above. I am deleting the sentence in question from the draft text of my book which is in preparation for a re-print. Mark N

  5. HI Mark!

    Stringotype.com shows results from an empirical test of numerology. It concludes that the method has significant explanatory power. Also that this fills linguistics de re numbers with essentials. What is your opinion?

  6. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks. I have looked at stringotype.com but I cannot at present find anything of linguistic relevance (i.e., numerology as linguists understand it, where numbers are linked with alphabetic letters etc). In addition, I do not understand the sentence: Also that this fills linguistics de re numbers with essentials. Please advise on both points. Thanks again. Mark Newbrook

  7. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks. I have looked at stringotype.com but I cannot at present find anything of linguistic relevance (i.e., numerology as linguists understand it, where numbers are linked with alphabetic letters etc). In addition, I do not understand the sentence: Also that this fills linguistics de re numbers with essentials. Please advise on both points. Thanks again. Mark Newbrook

  8. marknewbrook says:

    Hello again! I have just found the linguistically relevant section of the Stringotype.com material. Apologies for the delay.

    Unfortunately, the material contains various errors and misconceptions regarding language.
    The most important issues are the following:

    1
    Linguists know of no good reason for regarding the CURRENT ordering of the letters of the Roman Alphabet as used in ENGLISH as especially important. (The current world dominance of English is a contingent matter of history and is linguistically irrelevant.) Any conclusion along these lines which was demonstrated using English data would thus apply ONLY to (native?) speakers of English. Other languages in various periods including the present (and even English in other periods) display different orderings of letters and indeed different numbers of letters (more or fewer than in English; where there are more, ‘added’ at various points in the sequence), and would thus require separate analyses. And what of BI- or MULTI- LINGUAL speakers for whom more than one language is relevant? (And what of languages written in other alphabets, in abjads, or non-alphabetically?)

    2
    The comments about formants reveal confusion between alphabetic letters and phones/phonemes. A formant is an acoustic feature of a phoneme (better, a phone), NOT of a letter. In languages such as English, any given letter may express a range of phonemes, and any statement regarding formants will be true only for one of these phonemes and will not be relevant in cases where the letter expresses a phonetically different phoneme. Thus, in English the letter E represents /e/ as in Gerald, /i/ as in Peter, etc. If formants and other phonetic features are important here, the numerological analysis must be re-cast in terms of phonemes rather than letters. But there is NO agreed ordering of phonemes comparable with the alphabetical order of letters (and indeed linguists may disagree even on the preferred phonological analysis & thus on the inventory of phonemes for a given language). Thus, no numbers can reasonably be assigned to phonemes as numerology assigns numbers to letters, and no numerological analysis is possible. Furthermore, the phonemes used in specific words may differ in different accents. Thus the name Megan is usually pronounced with /e/ in the UK but with /i/ in Australia. This would generate different results even if a numerological analysis involving phonemes were possible. (In addition, it is not clear what is meant here by ‘most and easiest formants’.)

    Given all this, I suggest that any conclusions arrived at are invalid, because they are based on an entire series of basic errors and conceptual confusions.

    Other errors (etc):

    There is no such thing as ‘the Hindu-Arab alphabet’. I suspect that this involves confusion
    between alphabetic letters and the ‘Arabic’ numerals (apparently Indian in origin) (Who is
    included in this ‘we’ who allegedly use this alphabet, anyway? English-users? Europeans?
    Certainly not the whole of modern humanity!)
    There is no such thing as ‘the Abjad writing system’. The word abjad is NOT the name of a
    particular script but a TERM for a type of writing system (which did indeed probably
    emerge about 2000 BCE, perhaps in Sinai): namely, an alphabet in which only consonants
    are shown, unlike a true alphabet (a later development) in which vowels too are shown.
    It is true that in some scripts letters and numbers are represented by the same symbols. One
    such is the Greek Alphabet; others are some abjads But, as there is no one abjad, this
    statement (including the reference to ‘Abjad numerals’) is confused.
    Why are no letters assigned the number 9? Even if the system is based on a specific abjad in
    which no letter was used for 9 (how, then, WAS 9 represented there?), the application to
    current English (etc) of a system used 4,000 years ago for a very different language appears
    arbitrary.
    What is the ‘natural process of writing’? Note that writing as such is only a few thousand
    years old.
    No serious linguist expects to reconstruct Proto-World.

    I do not understand the following expressions in the material:

    most reiyfied (typed) alphabet
    filling De Re numbers with essentials
    Of all things – types and tokens – numbers are often seen as where we are nearest “das ding
    an sich”… (I know what the German means, although Ding should have a capital D. I also
    understand Type & Token)
    Yesterday’s morphology is today’s syntax

    Mark Newbrook

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