Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The serious side of speaking backwards

Anybody can painstakingly read words backwards, but how many can do it by ear? Professor Andrew Levine discovered his talent for speaking backwards in 1959 when, as a teenager watching the news on television, he admired the skill of the interpreters accompanying Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on his visit to the United States. Levine was keen to try his own hand at interpreting, so, as he turned every English word he heard back to front.

Word game

Amusements of this kind are not uncommon in children, especially between the ages of eight and ten, when they like to construct secret play languages. To do this, they do not have to be literate: in Panama, young Cuna Indians have a traditional game called sorik sunmakke, in which they reverse the order of the syllables in each word.

In Levine's case, the speed at which he spoke backwards was quite exceptional. He thought of his talent as nothing more than a party trick, until colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught political philosophy, decided to subject him to rigorous tests.

When asked to provide a simultaneous 'translation' of simple sentences, Levine started and finished less than two seconds behind the spoken model he was translating. Individual words he could reverse almost instantaneously, as if speaking normally. Turning words backwards often produces combination of sounds that do not occur in English, yet his failure rate over long passages was only 7 per cent.

The reason for Levine's proficiency is that he does not allow the spelling to interfere with his backwards versions of words. Like many children who take up talking backwards, he reverse the phonemes, the units of sound considered to be the building blocks of speech: 'dollars' becomes 'srallod', and 'peace' becomes 'seep'. As Levine reverses only the sounds he hears, silent letters are ignored. This means he is almost as fluent in repeating foreign languages backwards, even ones he does not understand.

Subconscious ability

Linguists were particularly interested in the fact that Levine, albeit subconsciously, was aware of the existence of phonemes. If the brain does cut spoken language up into segments of sound, further research may have practical applications in helping both the deaf and children who, through some mental disorder, have difficulty in acquiring normal forwards speech.

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