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January 29, 2012 9:48 PM   Subscribe

You can say any common word to Alyssa. She will pronounce it backwards the proper way in 3 seconds or less.
posted by ColdChef (74 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
What the awesome.
posted by The Potate at 9:54 PM on January 29, 2012


Fgnarly.
posted by darkstar at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2012


Where's the proof? I wanna see the video reversed!
posted by scose at 9:59 PM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


She's not even thinking about it. It's immediate and...reflexive. She has a magic shortcut. Must be done in hardware.
posted by bz at 10:03 PM on January 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


I'm equally as depressed at the brother's inability to think up interesting words as I am impressed at her talent.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:07 PM on January 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


I am impressed. Whomever programmed that robot did a great job.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:07 PM on January 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


She isn't pronouncing the words backwards. What she's doing is much easier: She's spelling the words backwards and pronouncing the results.

I used to entertain myself by pronouncing entire sentences backwards into an audio recorder and then playing the recording backwards. It's fun if you're the right kind of weird.

I got fairly good at it. The hardest part is getting the inflection right.
posted by Spire at 10:23 PM on January 29, 2012 [17 favorites]


I used to this in high school. She's doing what I did, and saying the words spelled backward, rather than reversing the sounds.
One more-obvious example: "Bugles". She says, "SLEG-ub". Backward spelling. Backward pronunciation would be more like "zl-GOOEYB", but that's understandably harder.

The speed with which she does it is impressive, though, and better than I ever did, except with words I already knew.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:24 PM on January 29, 2012


What struck me as weirdest about this is that a friend of mine's younger sister can do the same thing with similar speed/indifference...and she's also a lanky white chick with dead straight blonde hair.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:24 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


XNIJ!
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:25 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Give her some fishnets and a top hat, and she could seriously eff up a comic book universe.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:27 PM on January 29, 2012 [16 favorites]


Things are kinda slow in Poteau, Oklahoma huh?
posted by msalt at 10:28 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


They were slow in Grantsville, Maryland, too, msalt...
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:30 PM on January 29, 2012


@bz: she is thinking about it. She's visualizing the word and reading it backward.
posted by lastobelus at 10:31 PM on January 29, 2012


"I used to entertain myself by pronouncing entire sentences backwards into an audio recorder and then playing the recording backwards. It's fun if you're the right kind of weird."

Yeah, I did the same when I was a radio DJ thirty years ago. (Overnight rural C&W and I got bored, often.) Playing in the production studio and doing that whole reverse effect stuff that was cooler then than it is now, it occurred to me to phonetically transcribe some reversed speech by Reagan, then record myself saying it, then reversing the tape. The effect was really, really cool. Very much both alien and scary, comprehensible as English, but very wrong.

"She isn't pronouncing the words backwards. What she's doing is much easier: She's spelling the words backwards and pronouncing the results."

Yeah, but I'm not entirely sure this is much easier. It's probably a good question for some linguists.

She does have a freakish ability to reverse the spelling of words and I'd bet a bunch of money she's doing it visually, in her mind's eye. She's either spatially adept or adept at abstract symbolic manipulation, or both.

But it's conceivable that someone could just as likely be as adept at a similar phonological manipulation. I don't know.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:36 PM on January 29, 2012


While observing the comments made here, I still say "neat".

Other than entertaining the troops, what's this talent good for?
posted by LoudMusic at 10:38 PM on January 29, 2012


she's clearly translating each word into french, then from french into classical greek, then from classical greek back to english, except backwards. which i used to do in 4th grade, except faster. plus my dad owned a bubblegum factory and i got all the bubblegum i wanted.
posted by facetious at 10:38 PM on January 29, 2012 [61 favorites]


Least useful mutant ability ever.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:38 PM on January 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


Here's the reversed video, which scoce requested. It sounds just as gibberish-y in reverse as it does played forward (which is probably because she is reading the words backwards, like Spire suggests).

Or, as one reddit comment put it, "The only thing I could make out was 'Paul is dead.' "
posted by marcusesses at 11:02 PM on January 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


...it occurred to me to phonetically transcribe some reversed speech by Reagan, then record myself saying it, then reversing the tape. The effect was really, really cool. Very much both alien and scary, comprehensible as English, but very wrong.

Radiohead did this on the first 4 lines of Like Spinning Plates.
posted by scose at 11:04 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a visual thing - I couldn't really hear very well, but it wasn't backwards pronunciation. The one I did hear very clearly was "Asia" - she pronounced it "a-i-sa" and not "uh-zhay", so I figure she is pronouncing them as she sees them and not as she hears them. She's probably a damn good speller.

Amazing.
posted by Xoebe at 11:06 PM on January 29, 2012


I used to this in high school. She's doing what I did, and saying the words spelled backward, rather than reversing the sounds.
One more-obvious example: "Bugles". She says, "SLEG-ub". Backward spelling. Backward pronunciation would be more like "zl-GOOEYB", but that's understandably harder.


In fact, she would NOT say "bugles" backwards as "sleg-ub" -- she would say it as "sel-gub," because that's what "bugles" backwards is.

My point is: while she is, as others have noted, reversing the spelling and not the sounds, there's no reason to think reversing the spelling is easier than reversing the sounds. After all, when you have the time to think about it and type it out, it's still very easy to make a mistake and write "SLEG-ub" instead of "SEL-gub."

She's probably doing some sort of visualization that we could conceivably compare to synesthesia. Whatever it is, it's unique and impressive and bizarre.
posted by lewedswiver at 11:08 PM on January 29, 2012


Word reversal is something Dick Cavett does/did, too.
posted by Cranberry at 11:15 PM on January 29, 2012


Ivan Fyodorovich wrote:
Yeah, but I'm not entirely sure this is much easier.
Sorry; I should have been more explicit: I meant easier for me. I can do the trick she's doing about as fast as she can; I automatically visualize words anyway, so spelling them backwards is pretty trivial.

I'm much slower at actually pronouncing things backwards, because that involves constructing the backwards audio in my head and then reversing it in my head it to make sure it sounds right before saying any of it.

For other people whose brains are wired differently, it could easily be the other way around.
posted by Spire at 11:16 PM on January 29, 2012


Er. I can do this, although she's much more practiced than I am. I see words when I think about them, and I can do any trick in my head that you could do if you had the word written down in front of you.

My usual party trick is counting letters (document! eight letters! synecdoche! ten!) but it's also handy for spelling obscure words. And I can do the backwards thing, but I have to remember to start reading at the end. My wife has a girlfriend who says that she sees words too, so it can't be terribly rare.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:26 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Xoebe wrote:
The one I did hear very clearly was "Asia" - she pronounced it "a-i-sa" and not "uh-zhay"….
FWIW, "Asia" pronounced backwards would sound more like "uzh-YEH".

This is because the long "a" sound in "Asia" is a diphthong (a combination of two vowel sounds). When you realize that the long"a" in "Asia" it's pronounced the same way as the "ey" in "hey", reversing it to "yeh" suddenly makes a lot of sense.
posted by Spire at 11:29 PM on January 29, 2012


"Radiohead did this on the first 4 lines of Like Spinning Plates."

Yeah, I think it's harder to understand the words because the singing itself distorts the phonemes somewhat. With my experiment with plain speech, the result was mostly easily comprehensible, but also very wrong-sounding at the same time.

Also, they're doing the same thing with that main melodic line. I've long thought about that, too; but it's relatively trivial now with MIDI and sampling to musically reverse something and then audibly re-reverse it, so that musically it's (mostly) correct but the instrument sounds are all backwards. I hear this done in songs, now and then, no doubt failing to notice it most of the time.

Huh. It's been a while since I've listened to Amnesiac.

My sister and I are both moderately visuospatially adept. I can readily manipulate in three dimensions individual letters in my mind's eye, entire words with not too much more effort. I've known people with much more impressive abilities in this regard. I do think that's what this young woman is doing—quickly reversing the words in her mind's eye in some sense and then pronouncing the result. I think everyone here understands that this is quite distinct from reversing the words phonetically—but if not, it really and truly is.

"I automatically visualize words anyway, so spelling them backwards is pretty trivial."

When you visualize the words backwards, are you also reversing the letters? It seems to me that when I do this, I actually rotate the words in my mind's eye, and thus the letters are necessarily rotated. If you don't visualize the letters as backwards, but the words are, then you're doing a more complicated mental manipulation, most likely a more abstracted symbolic one. Which is equally/more impressive, but I'm not sure that it's primarily visualization. Well, unless you're rotating the letters first, then the word as a whole second. That would be pretty cool. I just did that with hello (serifs, so it's meaningful with the Ls), with the four letters rotating around their vertical axes simultaneously, then the word, so the letters end up right but the word reversed. That's only four, relatively easy to visualize letters, so it's not very impressive.

In a related but possibly not-that-interesting digression, having some natural talent at this and in general with my spatial/mechanical sense, it's always really, really bugged me that I don't find anything more than trivial in topology easy to intuit. I feel like knots should be trivial for me to "get", but they're not.

Anyway, careful research has shown that autistic savants and math prodigies like the famed Srinivasa Ramanujan are not doing anything qualitatively different than anyone else. They're just doing it more quickly. This conflicts with most peoples' intuitions about these things, as it's difficult to understand both how some people do things that seem quite beyond comprehension to us, and then also how it is that we can do things entirely intuitively, almost effortlessly, that others cannot do without great effort. My visuospatial skills put me in an extraordinary position doing elementary geometry, as well as the geometry of pre-modern, geocentric astronomy...a lot of stuff I just "knew", without effort, while the people around me struggled. It was strange.

But, again, there's a preponderance of research to indicate that it's far more likely that such gifts—be they mathematical or linguistic or musical or whatever—are gifts of quantity, of facility, of speed, and not gifts of quality. This young woman is probably doing something that almost all of us can/could do, just much, much more quickly and with almost no effort.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:37 PM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


This would make those "stop saying what I'm saying (backwards)!" sibling fights in the backseat of the station wagon either hilarious, or insanity-making.
posted by blueberry at 11:50 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now if she learns to instantly translate to IPA first...
posted by zengargoyle at 11:53 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I skipped around looking for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or even Antiestablishmentarianism but considering how she did with the two or three word phrases she might have handled them ok.

I wonder if a tonguetwister would trip her up?
Unique New York? Rubber baby buggy bumpers?
posted by madajb at 12:04 AM on January 30, 2012


You're wondering what this is good for? I'll tell you what: A two-hour pilot for this fall.

THE REVERSER

America's enemies are lapping at her shores. Terrorists, anarchists, extortionists and crooks walk her streets in broad daylight, invisible to citizens and police, laying out their schemes in a mysterious new cipher that's stumped the country's brightest minds - a cipher known only as "Z-to-A."

But the FBI has a secret weapon - a young woman with a secret that could save the free world: She is Alyssa - the girl who can say things backwards. A rookie agent, her talent has left her feared by her peers, mistrusted by her family, and shunned by the brass. The only person who can get through to her: Her new partner, Matt O'Donnellham, a brash young Boston cop. With her knack for deducing the sound of words in reverse order, and his beefy upper body, they confront America's shadowy foes every week, fighting terror as only they can: Backwards.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:05 AM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


re: Radiohead's Amnesiac, the song they used to get the backwards sounding vocals was "I Will", which later showed up on their Hail to the Thief album.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 12:24 AM on January 30, 2012


English isn't a phonetic language, so splitting hairs on how she pronounces the words is a little silly.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:44 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"You have to learn to speak like the voices in David Lynch's head"
posted by Harry at 12:57 AM on January 30, 2012


I would have her head checked for tumors immediately.
posted by Willfull at 1:17 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you play the video backwards, she is swearing her allegiance to Satan, but it still sounds like she's talking about McDonald's, the American flag, and Pepsi.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:32 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm curious why you wrote "Pepsi", when it obviously should be "Coke". Granted, Pepsi is to Coke what Beelzebub is to Satan, so there's that.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:09 AM on January 30, 2012


"Pepsi" spelled backwards becomes "Is pep!", which at least makes sense.

On a related theme, anybody can learn to recite the alphabet backwards within minutes by remembering: ZY was an X-Warrior his wife gave him a coupon. "VUTS(whats) R(are) QPON(coupon) for" he ask? "for MLK(milk) JIHGs(jugs) to FED(feed) the Cute Baby Alligators" (via)

On an unrelated theme, I once spent an entire afternoon trying to come up with pornographic palindromes and the best I could come up with was SMEGMACAM GEMS. There really ought to be a better one.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:19 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


In fact, she would NOT say "bugles" backwards as "sleg-ub" -- she would say it as "sel-gub," because that's what "bugles" backwards is.

Interestingly, I was going to type "SELG-ub", but I checked against the video, and she actually says, "SLEG-ub", so that's what I went with. I didn't even bother to consider that it's wrong.

In fact, just now I had to go back and fix one of those in my typing, even though I was thinking about the difference.

I've played with recording backward-sounding things and reversing them, and it's insanely hard (for me, anyway) to predict in my head the way the sounds reverse, so I would say it forward, play it backward, transcribe the backward audio, and rehearse it a few times to get it as close to right as I could, and then record it and reverse it. It's still incredibly hard to get some of those sounds right; some of the backward vowels sounds work when you inhale instead of exhaling, but a lot of them don't.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:54 AM on January 30, 2012


Language Log featured spoken reverse English a couple of years ago.
posted by tykky at 3:41 AM on January 30, 2012


I can't believe some people are a bit "meh," considering how FAST she is doing difficult words, multiple words, etc. I definitely think this is some sort of special innate ability.

Also one of them should have suggested "Tulsa" and guffawed like Beavis & Butthead. And "Cuff."

Yeah I know that was probably Mom in the front seat.
posted by mreleganza at 4:00 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Audio reversing guy here. My friends and I did this word enough times that I have it memorized. It sounds like "Seshuiczcalieshekeshuesharfelacropus"
posted by Jpfed at 4:11 AM on January 30, 2012


Except the "pus" at the end should be more like "poose".
posted by Jpfed at 4:12 AM on January 30, 2012


Wow, Bob, wow.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:36 AM on January 30, 2012


"I used to entertain myself by pronouncing entire sentences backwards into an audio recorder and then playing the recording backwards. It's fun if you're the right kind of weird.

I got fairly good at it. The hardest part is getting the inflection right."
posted by Spire at 6:23 AM

Are You David Lynch!?

Also, Red Dwarf - Backwards - anybody got any erskip?

(Part 3 is also on the tube, but I can't find part 2)
posted by marienbad at 4:41 AM on January 30, 2012


You're wondering what this is good for? I'll tell you what: A two-hour pilot for this fall.

But doesn't she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:45 AM on January 30, 2012


Dammit.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:45 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I often wonder if Metafilter should have more or fewer shorthand ways to communicate that make discussion harder for the initiated, like the hamburger tag for sarcasm, but if we're ever taking nominees, I'm currently quite enamored with facetious's bubblegum factory to describe an "that's amazing/meh" debate. Or maybe "muggelbub"?
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:49 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


That gum you like is going to come back in style.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:50 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now I know how to mispronounce "omniscience" backwards.
posted by penduluum at 5:37 AM on January 30, 2012


But doesn't she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?

She looks like my cousin.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:42 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My sister and I used to do this. It's fun AND it's really annoying to people around you who don't know what you're saying. Which is one of the reasons it's fun!
posted by Mister_A at 5:48 AM on January 30, 2012


Also, did anyone notice that the eltit si delleps gnorw? I still think it's a llews tsop though.
posted by Mister_A at 5:50 AM on January 30, 2012


This reminds me of the episode of Cheers when Diane went out with a guy (Walter) who could instantly tell you how many letters were in any sentence that was said. After Sam was told of his talent and that they had just gone on a date, it led to the following exchange:

Sam: "How many days did it seem like?"
Walter: "24."
Sam: "How was Diane on a scale of a hundred?"
Walter: "29."
posted by flarbuse at 5:59 AM on January 30, 2012


Things are kinda slow in Poteau, Oklahoma huh?

I have some relatives in Poteau, and I'm pretty sure this is the most exciting thing to happen there since Charlene messed up Helen's perm down at "Curl Up and Dye."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:34 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can do this, although she's much more practiced than I am.

I'm not picking just on you, since a lot of other people expressed the same sentiment, but what you just said can apply to almost any skill out there.

Metafilter users really can be spoil-sports/haters sometimes...
posted by inigo2 at 6:44 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Madam I'm ..impressed.
posted by obscurator at 7:04 AM on January 30, 2012


The girl out of Hanson looks young.
posted by howfar at 7:35 AM on January 30, 2012


If you take a box of the snack "doo dads" and rotate it 180 degrees, it reads "spap oop". This is not exactly the same thing as what's being demonstrated here, but I thought everyone here on the internets should know this important fact.

If only there was an upside-down box of doo dads in a brief scene from The Shining, THAT WOULD EXPLAIN EVERYTHING.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:12 AM on January 30, 2012


I'm not dismissing the skill/practice involved in the feat here, but I was also disappointed to realize it was a reversal of spelling and not phonetics.

Did you know that "I'm sorry" backwards is "You're awesome"? Counter-intuitive but true! (for certain values of "I'm sorry"; don't go over-pronouncing that first vowel).
posted by nobody at 8:29 AM on January 30, 2012


For whatever reason in high school I had a teeshirt that said YAMAHA on it and when I went to brush my teeth one time I noticed that it spelled AHAMAY in the mirror because all the letters are horizontally symmetrical. Which is also true of the capital versions of all the letters in the name TIMOTHY which seemed very cool at one point.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:38 AM on January 30, 2012


I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back.
posted by anoirmarie at 8:40 AM on January 30, 2012


"the proper way"

So, she is able to figure out the many pronunciations of letter combinations she could run into in English based on the etymology of the word?

Because, if not, NO AMOUNT OF ADORABLE CUTE BRACES-WEARING HUMAN TRICKERY WILL SUFFICE. The Internets will destroy her.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2012


twoleftfeet: I think the palindrome you're looking for is "Smegma: jam gems."
Yeah, I wrote that. Don't share it much.
posted by msalt at 9:49 AM on January 30, 2012


I do think that's what this young woman is doing—quickly reversing the words in her mind's eye in some sense and then pronouncing the result.

I doubt this. It seems to many people like they're reading letters off a mental image when spelling things in a normal direction, but that's not what is going on. Spell the name of your first pet. Did you visually imagine the letters? If you did, that's a byproduct of the task and not what allowed you to perform the task. The language system is in an entirely different area of the brain, and linguistic and visual faculties are dissociable. The language faculty manipulates letters and words, not pictures of letters and words. This is why, for instance, children so often reverse letters like ds and rs when spelling. Storing the way letters look is a separate (and more difficult) task than is storing how to spell words. It would be really inefficient and unnecessary for word recall to be routed through a visual imagery system, particularly when words are not necessarily represented visually. In fact, when we do mentally visualize
letters, we are very bad at reading them. Visually imagine a tic tac toe grid containing the word DOG in the top row, PIG in the middle row, and LAM in the bottom row. What word reads in the diagonal from top left to bottom right? If you were actually looking at a picture, you'd be able to read the word in an instant. But the task is much harder in imagery, because we are bad at forming mental pictures and then reading them.

I think there is probably also phenomenological evidence against the idea that we get linguistic knowledge by manipulating linguistic imagery. Can you mentally visualize all the letters of a 12 letter word and read them off at once, or do they 'come into focus' as you visit each one? If the latter, that suggests that you're forming the mental picture by manipulating stored linguistic knowledge, not generating new linguistic knowledge by manipulating a picture. When reversing that 12-letter word, your linguistic faculty tells you what letter to put in as you focus in on each one, rather than there being any sort of mental rotation applied to an image of a 12 letter word as a whole.

Finally, mental rotation tasks and mental imagery manipulation are sensitive to the size of the mental object being manipulated. It takes longer to mentally rotate big objects and to rotate them further. Image manipulation is slow. Alyssa seems to be able to read long phrases backwards without a pause, leading me to think she's just accessing letters in a nonvisual linguistic representation in reverse order.
posted by painquale at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a low-priority background thread in my brain that runs anagrams. It spends all of its time picking words apart and shuffling the letters around, finding other words it can make out of the same letters, or finding multiple words it can make out of the same sets of letters, or simply telling me about interesting non-words it has discovered. This little daemon works on both letters and sounds, and the stuff it produces reminds me a lot of what this girl is doing - only she's doing it on purpose, and quickly, whereas the gizmo in my head is lackadaisical and intermittent. Tnettimertni, tent rime tint, nettimertin, tentimernitt, timentrettin, tin retine mitt, etc.

You might think this trick makes me good at Scrabble, but you'd be wrong; that game is all about memorizing long lists of arbitrary two- and three-letter pseudo-"English" words borrowed from Arabic or Sanskrit. At this task I suck mightily. If my opponent is allowed to play nonsense like "qat", "azo", "xu", and "hao", why can't I play "qops", "frg", "sep", and "jzq"?

Totally useless, to be sure, but I recognize a kindred spirit in this girl and admire the amount of practice (which probably felt a lot like play) that allows her to pull this trick off so smoothly.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:19 AM on January 30, 2012


Last year at dinner one night my 11-y.o. daughter admitted that she did this "all the time." We tested her with word after word and she replied without hesitation. "Ketchup" -- "Puch-tek." So she was doing it phonetically, I guess.

But once we got impatient for dessert we sort of gave up. A few times in the days after we tried to sneak up on her with a word but she always volleyed it right back to us.

I hadn't thought of it since until this past weekend, and now I see this FPP. I will have to ask her tonight whether she still does this. (Me, I read every license plate I see. *shrug* We all have tics…)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:04 PM on January 30, 2012


I can only add that saying Bruce Willis as though you are talking backwards is lots of fun. Try it.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:12 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


No. Gimme phonetic or go home.

(Moe ho grow kih ten uffy mig. Own.)
posted by herbplarfegan at 2:15 PM on January 30, 2012


Language Log reports.
posted by nobody at 5:30 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I doubt this. It seems to many people like they're reading letters off a mental image when spelling things in a normal direction, but that's not what is going on."

This is distinct from reading words normally. One way that she might be accomplishing this is to visually reverse the words and then "read" them as novel words...which is distinct from reading words of which we are already familiar. Also, however, I mentioned that the other possibility is what you suggest, that it's some abstract symbolic manipulation.

However, luckily we have a real linguist to weigh in, unlike either of us, who has the expertise to engage in the primary issue in your comment. Here's linguist Mark Liberman, of Language Log (linked in the previous comment):
But what Alyssa is doing, clearly, is thinking of the spelling, reversing the spelling in her mind's eye, and then pronouncing the string that results. Her facility in doing this is remarkable.
I wrote something much the same, but both of us should probably have qualified this more as it's not necessarily the case that this is what she's doing. But from an Actual Linguist's perspective, your argument above doesn't preclude that's what she's doing. And, obviously not, because pronouncing novel words is a distinct activity from normal reading.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:50 PM on January 30, 2012


painquale wrote: It seems to many people like they're reading letters off a mental image when spelling things in a normal direction, but that's not what is going on.

It's not exactly like reading the letters off a page. It's more like visualising your desk or your bedroom or any other place that you know very well. You know where everything is and you could probably recite the things in front of you from right to left or left to right, but you'd really have to stop and think if you had to list them by size.

The reason why I think of it as being visual rather than merely symbol manipulation is that it seems to obey the same rules as visual identification: I can easily tell the number of letters in words that are seven letters or less, but I usually have to count longer words in chunks; I sometimes get confused by letter pairs that merge visually; and as I said, I can actually "read" the words backwards. I don't seem to have a particular facility for reciting random strings backwards, but I can do it if I imagine them as a printed string and then "read" them as if they were a word. Perhaps it's just a psychological crutch, but it certainly doesn't feel that way to me.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:51 PM on January 30, 2012


I probably shouldn't have mentioned that we don't use visual imagery when spelling words normally. I wasn't arguing that because we don't use imagery in normal circumstances, Alyssa couldn't be using it. The point was to demonstrate that the fact that it feels like we use visual imagery for some task is poor evidence for our actually using visual imagery for that task.

The reason why I think of it as being visual rather than merely symbol manipulation is that it seems to obey the same rules as visual identification: I can easily tell the number of letters in words that are seven letters or less, but I usually have to count longer words in chunks; I sometimes get confused by letter pairs that merge visually; and as I said, I can actually "read" the words backwards. I don't seem to have a particular facility for reciting random strings backwards, but I can do it if I imagine them as a printed string and then "read" them as if they were a word. Perhaps it's just a psychological crutch, but it certainly doesn't feel that way to me.

I think you've got four arguments here. Miller's magical number seven is a rule of working memory in general, not visual memory in particular, so I don't think it helps your case. The same sort of response applies to your argument that you don't have much facility with spelling random strings of letters. It's easier to recall and cognize familiar and grammatical strings than unfamiliar and ungrammatical ones... but this is true of symbol manipulation in general, so I don't see vision as being particularly important here. And like I said before, I'm skeptical that feeling like you're using visual imagery is any guide to your actually using visual imagery.

But confusing letters that look alike: I do think that would count as powerful evidence that Alyssa's reading a sentence that she's visually imagining! I'm not sure that she ever actually does this, though. Actually, the one mistake people here have mentioned (SLEGUB) sounds more like a mistake one would make by manipulating symbols than by reading a visually represented word backwards. (Admittedly, she might just think BUGLES is spelled BUGELS.)
posted by painquale at 6:25 PM on January 31, 2012


Re: reversal in music, there's a track on the Eno/Moebius/Rodelius collaboration After The Heat called T'zima N'arki (or something like that) in which Eno sings an entire song in phonetic reverse. I recall reading that he wrote the song, recorded and reversed it, memorized it in reverse, then re-recorded the vocals live. It has a very strange, alien quality, as it sounds like a typical song played backwards, but without the obvious mechanical quality of such techniques. Actually, that whole album sounds 'alien'...
posted by jet_manifesto at 11:42 PM on January 31, 2012


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