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With no advance notice or visual aids, Levine, 36, can reverse the sound in words spoken to him and still maintain the order of the sentence. Furthermore, he can do it in English, French, German and Italian, which he speaks, and in unfamiliar languages as well. (Backwards in any tongue, Levine says, "sounds like an Eastern European language.") Research on the professor's speech patterns shows that he begins to "translate" a word within one-tenth of a second.
There has been no previous systematic research on backward speech, but one theory on Levine's unusual talent involves the concept of "phonemes," the sounds stored in the brain that are the building blocks of speech. The word "cat," for instance, includes three phonemes, one for each letter. Says former Wisconsin specialist Ray Kent, "When Professor Levine can translate backwards a word like refrigerator immediately, it suggests that he has in his brain some elementary speech units which enable him to begin to reverse words without having to stop and imagine each word or having to write the words down. For Levine it's like reading something reflected in a mirror."
He was discovered at a reception by Dr. Lewis Leavitt, a pediatrician who studies children's speech. "I've been doing this at parties for years," Levine says. Leavitt was intrigued, noting that many children can also reverse language, usually when they are between the ages of 8 and 10. "Evidently they simply do it spontaneously," he adds, "but very few are in a class with Dr. Levine."
Figuring out how Levine does it may yield some clues on the way the brain functions in the acquisition of speech, perhaps helping deaf people or those with brain disorders to learn to speak. Levine has already been the subject of a research paper given by a Wisconsin team at this year's Acoustical Society of America meeting.
Levine's strange skill became apparent when he was 14. During Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's televised 1959 visit to the U.S., the boy became fascinated with interpreters. In pondering a similar career, he realized he could already translate words—from front to back. "It just came to me," Levine says. "I realized I could do something others couldn't. But nobody said 'How adorable' or anything like that."
Raised in suburban Philadelphia, where his late father was a physician, Levine took both undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Columbia, ultimately specializing in political philosophy, not language. A member of the Wisconsin faculty since 1974, he teaches introductory philosophy, a task that he describes as "the top of the ladder, not the bottom." He has written one book, The Politics of Autonomy, about the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and has just finished a second. Occasionally bored with academic life, Levine admits he has "nothing else to do, unless I can replace Johnny Carson." (A comic named Jimmy Edmondson performed as "Professor Backwards" on radio and TV, doing a routine that included both written and spoken reversal. Edmondson was murdered in Atlanta in 1976.)
Campus celebrity has already improved bachelor Levine's social life. He is ready, he says, for a "long-lasting relationship. I cook and clean, and am very malleable. Perhaps there are some backwards groupies around."