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Back Talk

By David Berreby
Jul 1, 1992 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:46 AM


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Let’s look at the record. I’m for peace and prosperity. I’m against global warming, cruelty to small, furry animals, and arson. Others may disagree, but darn it, someone’s got to show leadership at this critical juncture for our country and our world. And, my fellow American, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’ll never lie to you.

Sorry, but I can’t help myself. This kind of talk seeps straight from the airwaves into my subconscious. This is a leap year, which means it’s a year of curious Olympic events, both hot and cold (do you really need to be alive to do well at luge?), and of curiouser packaged events in which candidates for the presidency vie for our votes. Except for 1800 and 1900, which didn’t have a February 29, the year of calendrical leap has always corresponded with the year of political lip. On endless newscasts and in debates sponsored by well-meaning folk like the League of Women Voters (not to be confused with the Luge of Women Voters), a posse of half- crazed politicians has been marinating us for months in a spittly sea of talk. They promise; they feint; they dodge; they sloganize. In 1964: All the way with LBJ (no irony intended then). In 1968: Nixon’s the one (and that he was). In 1976: Why not the best? In 1984: It’s morning again in America. Now here we go again. How about, It’s mourning in America? Or maybe, since the best couldn’t make it this time out, Why not the rest?

We are all used to staggering through this swarm of blather like ruined farmers in a cloud of locusts. But this year I don’t have the heart for it. There’s been such a spate of political people calling one another liars in public that I just ran out of credulity. Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill. Bill Clinton versus Gennifer Flowers. Senator Brock Adams of Washington versus seven women willing to sign affidavits (personally, I’d hate to get into an argument with even one affidavit). Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health versus a number of people who say the discovery of the AIDS virus, like sauce béarnaise and the cult of Mickey Rourke, must be credited to the French. To live in Washington, it seems, is to live in denial.

What wouldn’t we all give to be able to sort out who’s actually telling the truth? Not by hooking people to electrodes and tubes and oscilloscopes and graphs--most of us would find it disconcerting to see a congressional hearing or a presidential debate wired up like an intensive care unit. I mean something subtler. What if we could sense the truth by studying words alone? If we could find, by analyzing plain speech, the hidden mutterings of the speaker’s heart?

Well, fellow American, there are a number of professors scattered across the country who believe that we can do just that. (Granted, there are a number of professors across this country who’ll believe anything, but we’re not talking about work like The Pipe and the Spinach: Gender, Patriarchy, and Marginality in Popeye the Sailor Man. The academics I mean must face a reality check more stringent than a Modern Language Association convention.) When physical anthropologists help cops determine if unearthed bones are Jimmy Hoffa or just a rib dinner from 1975, they’re called forensic anthropologists. On that model, people who aim at sussing out the truth with a tape recorder and a theory call themselves forensic linguists. Ronald H. Carpenter, of the English department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is one.

Carpenter says that when someone is about to lie, or to attempt to manipulate the hearer, he (or to be politically correct, she; but since there’s nothing correct about politics, presidential candidates, like criminals, tend to be male) will pause a millisecond or two longer. With a little more time to assemble its utterance, the brain does a fancier job (a point I frequently make to editors). At that moment vocabulary is likely to become more varied.

This effect can be measured, Carpenter says, with a standard tool of linguistics: dividing the number of different words in an utterance by the total number of words used. For example, Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, for the people contains ten words, but only six different words. The ratio of different words to total words spoken is thus 6:10, or .60.

Carpenter scans transcripts in 50- or 100-word chunks to find a speaker’s characteristic ratio. Once he’s sure of that, he says, it’s easy to spot the points where a person’s psychological state changes, where he’s concerned about getting into trouble. They’re the points where the ratio jumps.

Not long ago, as a test of his theory, Carpenter looked at a 226- page transcript from the interrogation of a man suspected of murdering his grandmother (not a presidential candidate; I don’t know how that rumor got started). Carpenter’s method, he wrote in a recent paper, found that the suspect’s personally generated norm of language behavior was to use 36 different words when phrasing a statement of 50 words in length. That is to say, his ratio of different words to total words was .72. But when the suspect described the 15 minutes before he’d left his grandmother’s house on the morning of the murder, the ratio went up to .90.

That, Carpenter says, suggests strongly that however calm and reasonable the suspect’s tone might have seemed at that point, he was in actuality intensely worried about being tripped up on these details. Carpenter dutifully contacted the police department that had investigated the case. They replied, rather curtly, that the man had already been convicted of the murder.

Now, a method that might detect who among the citizenry has killed a grandmother ought to work on politicians too, and in fact, it was for studying people in public life that Carpenter first devised his method. He began his political-truth-ferreting work with the One, Richard Milhous Nixon. A Nixonphobe from way back, Carpenter dug up a transcript of Nixon’s 1952 Checkers speech, in which he saved his position as the Republican vice presidential candidate by defending himself to the nation against charges that he was using a secret slush fund.

At one point Nixon said: I don’t believe that I ought to quit, because I am not a quitter. And, incidentally, Pat is not a quitter. After all, her name was Patricia Ryan, and she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and you know the Irish never quit. Nixon’s mean ratio for the Checkers speech was .63, Carpenter says. But this passage clocked in at .70. And, sure enough, Pat Nixon was named Thelma Catherine, not Patricia, and she was not born on St. Patrick’s Day. Oh, well. Thank goodness he never fibbed about anything important.

Unfortunately, Carpenter hasn’t applied his method to any of our more recent agonies, like the ongoing primaries or the Thomas-Hill hearings. That’s one I was tempted by, Carpenter says, and in fact I have a file folder here with transcripts of their statements. If some student suggests some interest I may put that person on it. Generally, though, he doesn’t turn his method to current events or elections because, to make one thing perfectly clear, doing these kind of studies is very tedious. You have to wade through pages and pages of transcript and count the words in each fifty-word or hundred-word block. If he’s going to be bored to death, he’d like to get paid. (And unless you’ve happily watched every Democratic presidential debate since New Hampshire, I don’t think you’re in any position to criticize.)

Carpenter has been involved in a couple of real live cases, but he didn’t testify before a jury in either. Lawyers, who seem to think they already know English, are kind of wary of forensic linguistics. Different jurisdictions take different views, says William Stewart, a linguistics professor at the Graduate School of the City University of New York who recently edited a collection of papers on his colleagues’ forensic work. Out in Arizona or the Midwest, I think they still classify linguists with mediums. In fact, they probably rank mediums higher.

That makes it hard to find a student of language behavior willing to go out on a limb about subjects like Pat Buchanan’s psyche or the Thomas-Hill imbroglio. Indeed, to find anyone willing to do that, you have to go outside the field of forensic linguistics altogether--way outside. That’s where you can find David J. Oates, who runs something called Reverse Speech International in Dallas. Oates says Anita Hill was exaggerating. He says she must have had an affair with Clarence Thomas, because when you play a tape of her saying the porno title Long Dong Silver backward, you hear: It was not long. So there.

On the other hand, Oates also says that Popeye the Sailor Man played backward comes out as Fuzzy woman. Give me a ... Well, never mind the noun. (Be assured it’s a very well known, ancient Anglo-Saxon sort of a noun, which is also a verb, and those who use it this election year should not expect funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.) Oates also says a certain prewar speech of Adolf Hitler’s, played backward, yields, among other things, the phrase There is no oil, which is peculiar enough even before you consider that Hitler didn’t speak English (at least, not in forward gear).

Oates is convinced that psychologically significant messages are buried backward in speech, messages that people send and receive without being aware of it. We’re having communication with one another constantly on this level, he says. Detecting such conversation requires reverse tape recorders to play speech backward plus a lot of careful training (which he’s happy to provide) to pluck reverse-speech sounds out of the garble.

A couple of years ago Oates met with C. B. Scott Jones, a former Navy fighter pilot who was on the staff of Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. Thanks to a demonstration using his own speech, Scott Jones was convinced that Oates has really got something here. A few months later, during the Gulf crisis, Oates told him that press conferences and speeches of high U.S. officials, when played backward, kept yielding the name Simone. Scott Jones wrote Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, warning him that if Simone was a code word, the cat was out of the bag (or, at least, the tac was out of the gab).

One thing that was soon playing backward in Washington was Scott Jones’s career on Capitol Hill. Pell, a Democrat facing a fight for reelection, dropped him. Now Scott Jones heads the Human Potential Foundation, whose mission, he says, is to fund research that is not being funded anywhere else.

Scott Jones has no hard feelings. Some hotshot Republican wanted to make Pell look bad, he says. If you’re serious about trying to find where the edge is, you’ve got to take some scar tissue. Oddly enough, Pell won reelection anyway--perhaps because his opponent, Claudine Schneider, is best known to millions of insomniac Americans as the congresswoman on the infomercial for personal power tapes from Tony Robbins. Evidently Rhode Island voters preferred Hitler backward to Tony Robbins forward, and, fellow citizen, that was their right as Americans.

As for Simone, Oates says, you have to remember that the Gulf War was dubbed Operation Desert Storm. And the word for Desert Storm in Arabic? Simoom.

A chill went down my spine when I heard that, Oates says. He doesn’t claim to have an explanation for why world leaders seem to speak in tongues in reverse. I’m trying not to be dogmatic, because there’s far too many things about this that I don’t understand, he says.

Like all researchers, Oates is actually following in the footsteps of a pioneer--in this case, John Lennon, who started all this backward-playing stuff a quarter-century ago with a song called Rain. Lennon accidentally spliced in a track of the song backward, liked the effect, and let the recording stand. Fans discovered that they could hear the original by sticking their fingers on the label part of the record and turning it counterclockwise (there was more leisure in those days, remember, and people didn’t always just say no, if you know what I mean). And so it came to pass that Beatles fans began playing all their albums backward and decided, on the basis of what they found, that Paul McCartney was dead. In The White Album, for example, parts of the song Revolution 9 played backward supposedly turn up a voice saying, Let me out, let me out, and the repeated phrase number nine turned backward sounds like Turn me on, dead man, turn me on, dead man.

Cassettes and CDs are probably killing off this once-popular American pastime, but among those who still enjoy a night of backward rock music are certain fundamentalist preachers looking for the satanic influence of rock groups, especially heavy-metal. You might remember the North Carolina minister who in 1982 led his flock in a mass burning of rock albums. Oates, once a guidance counselor and ham radio operator in his native Australia, discovered reverse speech in 1984; he was playing albums backward to reassure some frightened teenagers that they were not being controlled by Satan’s minions.

The theory reached the courts in the 1980s, propelled by two young men in Sparks, Nevada, who shot themselves after listening to the 1978 Judas Priest album Stained Class. The boys’ parents sued the group and CBS Records for $500,000, claiming the messages on the album say, Try suicide ... let’s be dead ... do it, do it.

The trial was notable, among other reasons, because Washoe district judge Jerry Whitehead ruled that the First Amendment protects free speech, but not cheeps eerf; backward and other subliminal messages weren’t covered, he said. Still, on August 24, 1990, the judge held that the band wasn’t liable, because the sounds that could be interpreted as do it were not intentional. But the suits continue, moving through courts all around the country.

Oddly enough, Oates isn’t involved in any of these cases. He offered his expertise to both sides in the Nevada case, he says, but they turned him down. Neither legal team wanted to put a guy on the stand who would say that of course Stained Class had backward messages, and so does Sesame Street, and so did the judge’s conversation with his wife that morning. That’s lawyers all over. No sense of fun.

You’d think the shared experience of attorney disdain would make the professional linguists feel a little kindly toward Oates, but no. You know, when linguistics started out, it was very physically based--all phonetics, says William Stewart. Then it turned out that the real importance of linguistics was the psychological reality, not the physical process. So these guys who are working on the physical end are on their own. They can either be extremely good, or crackpots. There’s no easy way for an outsider to tell which is which.

You could think of it this way: The one supposed linguistic investigator who’s scored Thomas vs. Hill has it Thomas 1, Hill 0. But the scorekeeper is wearing a very odd hat and funny glasses and none of the other refs want to get near him. As for the problem of whom to vote for, not even Oates has worked on that one.

It’s a shame to think that there are tools going unused that could give us some sense of what our office-seeking fellow citizens have really got in mind. Word counts, sound graphs, even speeches played backward--I think any of them could help us make a sound electoral choice. And you can trust me on this issue. I mean, c’mon. Would I lie to you?

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