A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: reverse speech

13 Jan 1998
I was going to offer a refutation of Oates' theory of reverse speech until I read the study by Mark Newbrook and Jane Curtain, which appears under your "further reading". Their study and its results are devastating, and I have a hard time seeing how anyone could read it and continue to believe in this incredible theory.
I have an undergraduate degree in theoretical linguistics, and I wanted to offer my analysis of one of the examples that Oates uses.

Allegedly, a toddler who asked "A diaper?" was really saying "Help me out". This makes a very good case study in the phenomenon of  reverse speech:

The following sounds appear in "A diaper":  uh dye uh pur

Here are those sounds reversed: rup uh I'd uh

Compare these to the sounds in "help me out": help mee owt

Not all that similar, are they?

But add to this the question intonation of "A diaper?", which starts low and ends high.  In "help me out", the toddler starts high and ends low.  What an incredible coincidence!  That high to low voice intonation conveniently masks the marked differences in the sounds.  For example, there is no "m" in "a diaper", nor is there a "t", nor is there an "h", nor is there an "l". If I'm missing something here, help me out!

The crucial point in Newbrook and Curtain's report is the role of the power of suggestion.  Without being told in advance what you're supposed to hear, it is difficult, even impossible, to hear the "subconscious message".  That speaks volumes.
Bret Palm

reply: I agree that the only reason Oates is able to convince others that there is something to his theory is by telling them what some garbled message says before they hear it. The same is true of the so-called satanic messages in rock music. Until someone points it out, nobody hears anything. Suddenly, everybody hears it. Something similar happened with Disney and homosexual porn. Somebody played an animated film at slow speed and claimed to see erections under the Sorcerer's robes, etc. So-called Christian groups organized and started calling the trash talk shows. Pretty soon the talk show hosts were looking at all the Disney animations and finding evidence of obscene cartoons everywhere. Callers were more than happy to look for and discover even more examples of homosexual promiscuity placed in cartoons by a cadre of evil-minded graphic artists hellbent on corrupting the morals of the nation's youth.

Yes, it's the power of suggestion, but it is more as well. In the case of Disney, there was also homophobia which was a driving force behind the pareidolia. In the case of reverse speech, it's driven in part by the same wishful thinking that drives people to believe in truth serums and lie detectors because of a profound distrust in our judicial system to catch, convict and punish people like O.J. Simpson or the Ramseys. It is also driven by our fascination with anything bizarre.

reverse speech


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