reversals & such 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 21)

Hi again, everybody! I hope you’re all having a great festive season! All the best for 2013!

More on Reverse Speech:

Many of David Oates’ claims about RS are implausible on linguistic grounds, and he does not appear to have read more than superficially in the linguistic literature. And in fact the RS theory is prima facie implausible; it implies the existence of a major species-wide mental apparatus and a set of unconscious mental processes for which there is no other evidence and no persuasive explanation; and it arguably generates paradoxes with respect to the directionality of time.

Oates claims that the content of the messages produced in RS typically relates in a ‘complementary’ manner to that of the messages concurrently being produced in FS (albeit often couched in metaphors requiring analysis and elucidation). RS thus gives additional information to accentuate or strengthen the message of the associated sequence of FS. It may also reveal the speaker’s unconscious or unspoken thoughts, which may be in contradiction with their more conscious thoughts as expressed in FS. Oates believes that RS – being as it is unconsciously generated, free from conscious manipulation and indeed unperceived by the conscious mind – is always reliable as an indication of the speaker’s true opinions and attitudes; in other words, it is impossible to lie in RS, even while lying on the same issue in the equivalent sequence of FS.

Investigators, including trained phoneticians, typically find reversals much more difficult to hear in the absence of information about the corresponding FS, even after repeated listening. It might be granted that if RS were genuine some training might well be needed in order for it to be understood or even heard; but Oates himself, when questioned on this issue, is inconsistent, sometimes claiming that not only experience but training (by his organization) is required in order to hear RS reliably, but elsewhere stating that newcomers to the subject can immediately hear many cases of RS (perhaps after prompting, on which see below). The case for RS would be materially strengthened if several RS analysts could independently ‘find’ the same RS sequences, across a range of examples, without knowledge of the corresponding FS sequences.

Furthermore, the fact that many alleged reversals are supposedly couched in metaphors frequently renders interpretation difficult, even where the content of the FS is known.

Investigation of Oates’ claims is hindered by a number of obscurities in his discussion. The most important of these involves what appears to be a crucial methodological and theoretical inconsistency.

Oates and his followers seek to determine whether or not alleged cases of RS actually involve what he calls at different times ‘phonetic coincidence’, ‘coincidental reversals’ or ‘constants’, by which he means either a) the ‘accidental’ occurrence of very short sequences (typically single short words) which are (almost) the same in FS and RS (‘phonological palindromes’, such as dad) or b) cases in which the reversal of the FS sequence yields another equally possible sequence, so that there is a pair of corresponding forms, each of which is (approximately) the reversal of the other, such as say/yes. He accepts that in such cases the FS and reversed forms correspond consistently, and does not regard cases such as these as genuine examples of RS. (Oates suggest7 that there are some longer sequences such as Don’t regret (it/this) and I love my husband very much which also constitute phonological near palindromes but which he accepts as genuine RS sequences because of their length. However, these are not phonological near palindromes; the reversal of such an utterance is quite unlike the original.)

There are three major problems with Oates’ ideas at this point. Firstly, Oates is not consistent as to which sequences do and do not count as ‘phonetic coincidences’, ‘coincidental reversals’ or ‘constants’, treating very similar short expressions at times as belonging to this special category and at other times as genuine RS. Secondly, Oates’ explanation of the difference between cases of these two kinds is incoherent. His definition of ‘genuine RS’ involves reference to ‘the phonetic construction of the forward speech sounds as they were said in the instant they were captured on tape’; but this definition applies equally well to his ‘phonetic coincidences’ (etc.), and indeed to any reversal of a FS sequence.

Thirdly, Oates seeks to identify and exclude ‘phonetic coincidences’ (etc.) precisely because, if his general theory is to be deemed valid, he obviously has to claim that, in contrast with such cases, ‘genuine’ cases of RS are characterized by the occurrence of different reversed speech forms corresponding with the same FS form on different occasions. In other words, the very same FS sequence spoken by two different individuals, or spoken by the same individual on different occasions and when in different emotional states, may produce entirely different RS sequences. Oates needs to make this claim because he needs to argue that differences in the feelings and knowledge of different speakers uttering the same phrases (in the same accents), emotional shifts on the part of one speaker, or shifts in the style of the discourse, can be displayed through differences in the RS. However, this claim is quite implausible: there is nothing present in RS other than reversed FS sequences, which will obviously differ only to the extent that the FS differs. Certain differences of phonetic detail (including ‘supra-segmental’ effects such as intonation) might appear auditorily more salient in reverse than they do forwards; but this phenomenon could not account for the global differences between different reversals of the very same FS sequences which Oates often identifies. Neither could minor accent differences in FS have more than minor effects on the form of RS sequences.

In addition, if Oates’ distinction between ‘phonetic coincidences’ (etc.) and ‘genuine’ RS were accepted, evidence that a given FS sequence did not produce the RS sequence posited by Oates when reversed could be countered with the claim that there was no reason why it should produce the same RS sequence on different occasions. This obviously reduces the reproducibility of Oates’ investigations. Although there is no reason to accept Oates’ stance on this issue, careful replications of Oates’ experiments have used the recordings provided by Oates himself, so as to avoid such objections.

As ever, detailed references on request. More on RS next time!


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