[xmca] Palindromes and Semordnilap

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Sun Jan 07 2007 - 20:18:19 PST

I've often wondered if "teach" and "cheat" (which I have used to teach the "five word rule" on using sources) are truly palindromic. The problem, of course, is the "ch" sound, which in IPA is composed of two phonemes, namely /t/ and /sh/ (it's not really written like that in IPA, it's more like the f-hole on a violin without the crossbar).
  If we treat /t/ and /sh/ as two different phonemes, which of course it/they is/are in most languages, then "teach" and "cheat" are not palindromic, because the /t/ and /sh/ are not reversed. The reverse of "teach" would be something like "shteat".
  So you see maybe Puppeg Gruppifuppin's hyper-orthographic undergrads were onto something. "Say yes", on the other hand, is a true spoken palindrome, meaning you can actually digitalize it and play it backwards, and it's understandable.
  Mike was wondering, in his pragmatist way, if any of this has more than curiosity value and in particular if it has anything to do with phonics and reading instruction. I don't really know, and I'm a little wary of the various studies that show that Chinese kids have a MUCH lower rate of dyslexia than kids in other countries because of their writing system. But there IS a well known form of dyslexia which involves reversing phonemes, rather as I tend to do with words like "left" and "right" and "yin" and "yang". We could call it "semordnilap", involuntary palindromery. Well, semordnilap is apparently non-existent in China.
  In any case, I think that BOTH spoken palindromes ("teach-cheat" and "say yes") point to the problem of using phonemes, which as Peg points out were really derived from written language, to analyze spoken language. With "teach" and "cheat", we are unsure on exactly what constitutes a phoneme (/t/ and /sh/ can be separate phonemes in English too you know). And "say yes" indicates TWO different phonemes when there is really only one.
  That brings me to a rather silly remark I made a few posts ago, which David Preiss fortunately caught me on. I was criticizing Tomasello's statement that the "only" reason why language develops a "separate" layer of lexicogrammar (which unlike phonology and unlike semantics does not interface directly with the physical world) is the need to have many ways of saying the same thing.
  I said that I thought that the need to have one way of describing many things was more pressing, and of course this is true: that's why Piaget complains that children's first words are so polysemic. But of course you don't need lexicogrammar to use one utterance to refer to many different things; the fact that in "Say Yes" one phoneme can refer to more than grapheme is just one example.
  The other meaning of "palimpsest" is a "magic slate"--you know, those waxy things with covered with a sheet of plastic that you can write on and then erase by lifting the sheet with a ripping sound. Freud was fascinated by them, and constructed a whole theory of memory around the metaphor. They are very useful when someone catches you writing something silly, no? Rrrrip!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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