The Phonetics of Twin Peaks: Why Does the Black Lodge Sound so Strange?
It’s one of the first mysteries of Twin Peaks diffuse mythological plot the audience encounters: When FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper enters a red-veiled waiting room in his dream at the end of the second episode, he encounters a peculiar man of small stature together with the recently deceased high school-girl Laura Palmer. Both of them talk in a more than peculiar way. They do speak English, but in an unfamiliar und unsettling way.
If you are a fan of the series, you already know what I am talking of. The actors of the characters in the Red Room – or Black Lodge, respectively – actually talk backwards. In detail, it works like this: The actors recite their lines into a recorder, which then plays them backwards to the actors. The then learn this gibberish by heart and recite it again. For the aired series, this recording is then again played backwards. This way, the lines sound like actual English – but with the peculiarities we encounter in the Red Room, caused by the features of backwards talking.
This isn’t an insight that justifies an article after 25 years. In the 2001 DVD release of the first season, there even was a speaking tutorial included, explaining the whole thing. Instead, I would like to show you through scientific phonetic methods, why and how this act of reversal changes speech so much. Afterwards you will probably understand way better why the Black Lodge sounds so weird yet so attractively intimate.
A Short Digression into Phonetics
You don’t have to be a linguist to understand what I will talk about, but knowing a few terms that are used by phoneticians will help the process. Let me give you a very short introduction into the field.
Phonetics is the study of the practical application of language. It only ever concerns itself with one language system at a time, which in our case is Standard American English.
I am going to transcribe a few lines spoken in Twin Peaks here in a phonetic alphabet called International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Those individual phonetic characters are referred to as phonemes in this context: the smallest meaning-distinguishing parts of speech. Phoneme strings show how a word is reproduced in spoken languaged and are written between //. For example: to show the pronunciation of “Agent Cooper” in IPA, one would write /eɪdʒənt ku:pər/, consisting of the phonemes /eɪ/ (a diphtong), /dʒ/, /ə/, /n/, /t/ as well as /k/, /u:/ (meaning a long vowel), /p/ and /ər/. The phoneme /ə/, called “shwa”, will appear a lot in this text and needs further explanation.
It generally takes the place of all vowels in a word that are not explicitely stressed. This helps to show the verbal habit of having as little effort as possible when speaking. Do a test yourself: When you say “hello”, is the “e” as pronounced as the “o” at the end or do you kind of swallow it in the process of speaking?
The so called rhotic /r/ shows an /r/ tone that flows from the vowel prior to it. It exists mostly at the end of words in connection with a shwa and is only parts of some English variants, not all of them. People who speak Standard British English, for example, will be unfamiliar with it, while Scottish or Welsh dialects may have it, yet not necessarily.
The Phonetics of the Red Room
With theory out of the way, let’s take a specific example from Twin Peaks: The words spoken by Sheryl Lee in her role as Laura Palmer that Agent Cooper hears in his Red Room dream. Have a look at the embedded video, seconds 0:20 to 0:47:
Hello Agent Cooper.
I’ll see you again in twentyfive years.
A regular phonetic transcription of those three short lines would look like this:
/heləʊ eɪdʒənt ku:pər
aɪl si: jʊ əgeɪn ɪn twentɪfaɪv jɪərz
Keep in mind that this varies depending on the language variation of the speaker. The shwas used here could be fully fledged vowels in another dialect. For the purpose of this article, it is pretty handy to use this Standard American English transcription as a base, though.
To have a first look at the backwards spoken version of those lines, I’ll now transcribe the reversed character sequence for you. For a better overview, let’s keep the order of the lines intact.
repooc tnega olleh
sraey evifytnewt ni niaga uoy ees ll’I
Regular transcription of the reverse lines:
/rəpu:k tnegə ɒleh
srəɪj fɪafɪtnewt nɪ nəaga ʊj ɪs lɪə
If we play this back in reverse, it should look and sound like this:
Backwards transcription of the reverse lines:
/helɒ əgent ku:pər
əɪl sɪ jʊ agaən ɪn twentɪfaɪf jɪərs
This looks surprisingly comprehensible. Some peculiarities are there, however: First and foremost, there are a lot of unpronounced shwas where full vowels should be. Also, there are some diphtongs, i.e. vowel phonemes consisting of two vowels gliding into each other, that do not really exist in our Standard American English speech vocabulary. Because of that, they are difficult to reproduce.
Finally, here is the exact transcription of the lines Laura Palmer says in the video. Compare them to the transcription I did just now and see if you can find any differences.
Transcription of Laura Palmer’s spoken lines:
/helɔ: æʒɪent gʊpər
haɪl sɪjʊha:gen ən twentɪfa:f jɪərs
There are a few things to say about this.
You might have stumbled over the /h/ signs. Those so called aspirations give away breathing noise, simply put. Normally, they exist in conjunction with plosives, those consonants like k, g, t, d, p and b that are produced by letting air through a specific closure in the mouth. This can also be done with a succeeding stream of air; making a /ph/ from a /p/, a /th/ from a /t/ and so on. In the case of Laura Palmer, they are either actual breathing noises that sound strange because the are heard backwards, or they might be cut-up phonemes that have not complete been removed from the edited recording.
It also seems that Laura uses vowels that are way more pronounced than they would be in the backwards recording I transcribed. A lot of the shwas there are fully fledged vowels in the airing. It’s easy to see why: Since Sheryl Lee knew what was going to happen with her backwards talking and since she had to practice a lot, it was a bit easier for her to overpronounce the right vowels than for us. She simply knew when she had to exaggerate her speaking, so the reversed backwards recording would sound more easily understandable. It’s possible to see this when looking at Laura Palmer’s “Meanwhile”, which features a break in the middle not found in the regular pronounciation: /mhi:n|waɪl/. It’s probably save to say that having the regular recitation of the lines reversed and played back to learn the backwards pronounciation helped the actors achieve this.
The melodic structure or intonation is an important part of everyday speech which we often don’t even consciously acknowledge. Normally, you can feel when it is off, though – most often when second language learners or people with a strong accent do it. In English, most of the time every main word of a sentence (every noun, adjective and verb, basically) has one strongly stressed vowel and sometimes a few less stressed ones, depending on the length of the word. Because main words and filling words (to, the, and, or and so on) alternate more or less regularly, sentences have a distinct rhythm of stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed. This rhythm is predictable and helps the brain realise what language variation is spoken. Learning this rhythm actively – more importantly, learning to manipulate it – kann alienate even familiar languages, something that clearly happened in Twin Peaks. Have another look at “meanwhile”. I’ll mark the stresses in regular pronunciation and in Laura’s with an apostrophe in front of the stressed syllable.
Laura Palmer’s intonation:
See the double-stress in contrast to the unstress first syllable of the regular pronunciation? Overstressing the /mhi:n/ syllable is one way for Sheryl Lee to manipulate how we process the word, which gives her further control over the weirdness of the Red Room’s way of speech.
You should have a nice little overview over Twin Peaks´ genius way of producing a memorable language variant. If you by any chance read this text without having seen Twin Peaks, well, you should catch up on it. Despite it’s age, fetching up on Twin Peaks has been the best TV experience for me in a long time. As you can see because of the recently aired third season, it is also still a big thing. Take a look!