Phonetics quiz

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What language is this?


Here’s a bit more context:


And some more:


You might have figured out by now that it’s speech played backwards.  The original was part of a question that Kurt Andersen addressed to Richard Powers in an interview discussed here a few days ago:


I think it’s especially interesting how different many of the vowel-qualities seem in the forwards and backwards versions, e.g.

Forwards Backwards
[audio:] [audio:]
[audio:] [audio:]

[Note: if you want to explore this sort of thing yourself, Audacity has a convenient “Reverse” function.]


  1. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    MYL: how different many of the vowel-qualities seem

    Well, a quick comment would be: I think the reverse version just serves to empahsise the actual phonetic values of some of the vowels (as opposed to the “consiously processed” perceptions we entertain when listening with comprehension, even as phoneticians).

    In this example, the /ai/ in decided is quite weakly diphthongal, and quite backish — and that’s what you hear more prominently in the reverse version. (The weak offglide, if any [I haven’t looked at the spectrogram] is probably hidden by what you hear as the transition from the tapped /d/ in reverse, which itself may be quite different from a non-reversed transition.) Similarly, the /u/ in you is quite front, and again that’s what I hear after reversal. And the nucleus of the /ou/ in so sounds much more central…

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. I would expect that this semi-illusion — a cousin of the phoneme restoration effect — would be much weaker in a language that the listener doesn’t know.]

  2. Stephen Jones said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Lovely piece of software audacity. And totally free.

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    MYL: I would expect that this semi-illusion […] would be much weaker in a language that the listener doesn’t know

    Well, if you don’t speak Polish, you can give it a try here. (At the moment, the YouTube video seems to be suffering from the same error that plagued the previous post on LL — is someone censoring reverse music? It worked last night, so maybe it’s temporary.)

    The guy does snippets of Polish songs (not entire songs). It’s my native language, and I can tell you — at least to me, it’s not at all evident from the reverse version that it’s Polish…

    BTW, in the subscribe box on the right-hand side, he does give credit for the original idea to the guy featured in the previous LL post.

  4. Theo Vosse said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    But we all know from our speech synthesis classes that good artificial speech cannot be obtained without modelling the transitions. In this case, you hear these transitions in reverse, so that probably adds to the confusion.

    [(myl) Yes, some of the effect is hearing asymmetrical transitions backwards; and some of the effect is hearing words rather than sounds. I’m not sure how much of the apparent difference in vowel quality, in these two cases, is due to which factor. The obvious way to check this is to look, somewhat systematically and with the same methodology, in a familiar language and in an unfamiliar one.]

  5. fs said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    To those of you experiencing the loading errors on youtube: They are often easily resolved by refreshing the page once or twice.

    Also, if you have Firefox and the Greasemonkey extension, you also have the option of using YouTube Enhancer, which comes with some features that allow you to forcibly retry to load the video without reloading the whole page.

    By the way, I love the suprasegmental intonation in backwards speech – it’s probably the most alien-sounding change, at least to me.

  6. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    I’ve messed around with backwards speech quite a bit, as I suspect have many of us who are interested in phonetics. Both generating it (as per the previous post) and listening to it (looking for paradolia, such as “else there’d be no“/”when you deci-“).

    Should anyone at a party ever ask for my advice on how to pronounce a phrase backwards, I will be happy to help.

  7. Johanna Cochran said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    I am not a native English speaker, but I knew straight from the first sound that it was English. All my life I have been a bit obssesed with English pronunciation and how not to say certain words, so I could tell pretty quickly that the speaker on the recordings had an Americanized accent.

  8. Johanna Cochran said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Hmmm… now I wonder if I’d be able to recognize MY own language played backwards…

  9. Beth M. said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    I got it right away, but I’m also a big Twin Peaks fan.

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