Thesis Christ: Twin Peaks and Consonant Organization

Talking Backwards, Hearing Forwards

When she began her thesis last semester, linguistics senior Elaina Wittmer was told to watch all of Twin Peaks by her thesis advisor Professor Sameer Khan, so she did. This was to be the first of several deviations from traditional academic practice in the innovative creation of Wittmer’s thesis.

In particular, Wittmer was told to watch Season 1, Episode 2 of Twin Peaks, the “red room” or “dream sequence” scene. In this clip, the director had the cast speak backwards. When the audio is reversed, the words are meant to sound normal, but they still sound somewhat weird. Wittmer explains this discrepancy as a result of the way people organize their language in their mind, such as whether a sound is categorized as a consonant or a consonant cluster.

“I’ve never heard of anybody looking at backwards speech as a method [of] analyzing how words are structure[d] phonologically… A big part of my thesis is reviewing how a lot of people play with language, and how people create language games, like pig latin, and this is just so unlike anything I’ve seen academically,” Wittmer said.

Wittmer is currently examining the ways in which English monolinguals and Shona-English bilinguals anticipate how a word, either in English or Shona, will sound backwards. So far, her results have not at all been what she expected.

“It’s way less rigid than I thought it would be,” Wittmer said. “I thought it would be like, okay, English [speakers] are going to hear things and they’re going to break everything up. Shona [speakers] are going to hear things and they’re not going to break anything up. Both groups, I think, have kind of just met in the middle a little bit. Also, I think I took for granted how English speakers approach consonant clusters.”

Wittmer is studying one dialect of Shona, a language spoken in Zimbabwe, in addition to English. There are sounds in Shona that some speakers identify as single consonants, although English speakers often identify those same sounds as a cluster of multiple consonants.

“It’s super cool, because, as linguists, we kind of approach, like here are all the consonants and we can put them in a chart, and they fall into these categories, but with the data I’m getting instead of one chart, or like ‘this is it,’ you have a continuum,” Wittmer said.

Wittmer further argues that there might not be as clear of a distinction as linguists think between cluster languages and unit languages. Instead, all of these languages fall on a continuum. As Wittmer moves forward, she would love for there to be further study of Shona’s language family and for others to use more creativity in how they answer big questions.

“I don’t want people to feel like they’re tied to methodology that’s been seen a thousand times before,” Wittmer said. “Sometimes, you have to make really weird things in order to answer the questions that you want. I would like to see more people doing that. If this inspires people in some way, that would be cool.”

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