How about echo $variable | perl -nae 'print $a'
or possibly perl -e 'print((split /\s+/, "'$variable'"))'
Very many thanx to LanX - modifed 2nd suggestion to correct parenthesis, but ignored nested quotes comment since they are most definitely deliberate - without them, perl would split the string '$variable' whereas with them, the shell expands the shell variable and perl then splits that string.
A user level that continues to overstate my experience :-))
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