Alyssa "talks backwards"

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A currently viral video:

There are several different things that "talking backwards" might mean.

You might produce a vocalization BACKWARDS(X) which, when played backwards, would sound like X. That is, your vocalization would be a good imitation of a time-reversed version of some normal utterance X. Ian Catford was especially good at talking backwards in this sense. He practiced by playing audio tapes backwards — and demonstrated the correctness of his performances in the same way. There was a viral video on Youtube a couple of years ago that demonstrated this skill in a very striking way ("Reverse English", 11/1/2009).

Another possible meaning for "talking backwards" would be pronouncing the surface phonemic segments of a word or phrase in reverse order. Thus "clip" [klɪp] would come out as "pilk" [pɪlk], or "make" [mejk] would come out as [kjem].

But in fact, reversing the symbols is not at all the same thing as reversing the signal, and so a genuinely reverse-time version of "clip" would not sound anything like "pilk". Instead, the forward and backward versions would sound something like this (audio taken from the Merriam-Webster Online pronunciation of "clip", and reversed using the "Reverse" effect in Audacity):

Forward:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Backward:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And what Alyssa is doing is something else again.  She's reversing the order of the letters in the standard English spelling of the word, and then saying something that represents how she thinks that letter sequence might be pronounced.

You can see the difference most clearly with the words that end in "silent e". Thus her reversed version of "garage" (pronounced to her as [gəˈrɐdʒ]) is [ˈɛ.gəˌræg]:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This is a plausible way to pronounce the English letter sequence

egarag

but it turns the "silent e" into the main stressed vowel of the word, pronounces the immediately preceding 'g' as [g] rather than [dʒ] or [ʒd], etc.

If we were actually to reverse the pronunciation she was given, again using the Reverse effect in Audacity, we'd get:

Forward:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Backward:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And if we were to reverse the surface phonemic sequence [gəˈrɐdʒ] we'd get something like [ˈʒdɐ.rəg], or maybe [ˈdʒɐ.rəg] if you believe that the final affricate should be treated as a unit (a sensible view that the powers-that-be in the IPA have apparently never been able to accept…).

But what Alyssa is doing, clearly, is thinking of the spelling, reversing the spelling in her mind's eye, and then pronouncing the string that results. Her facility in doing this is remarkable.

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39 Comments »

  1. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    Sounds like a new Professor Backwards is on the scene. Yarooh!

  2. Joe Broad said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    Not a comment about this article, which is great. But a wish that you would use one of the many other ways to play sounds rather than Flash, which is not available on IOS and which even on other systems many people refuse to use.

    [(myl) Unfortunately, all the other options are worse. In principle, HTML5 is supposed to fix this, and at some point in the future it presumably will. But not yet. So for now, my choices seem to be to use this simple flash-generating macro which works everywhere but on IOS; or to use an HTML5 audio tag, which will fail in complicated ways in a long list of other environments; or to implement some ungodly complicated piece of crap code that switches 11 ways depending on which operating system/browser/plug-in combinations it diagnoses, and will be obsolete in a few months, and doesn't work in many cases anyhow.]

  3. Emily Viehland said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    I knew a girl in High School who did exactly this trick–but it was really just something she developed to play with her pure photographic memory. You could say (or read off to her) an entire paragraph, then she'd reverse the spellings and go right back from the end to the beginning. It was remarkable! It's just amazing what smart people get up to when they are bored…

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

    I wonder what she would do with "Rats live on no evil star."

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

    I would have developed this skill, but my mom always admonished me, "No backtalk!"

  6. Lazar said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    I'm pretty good at (real phonetic) backwards speech, but the one thing that I can't master is voiceless/fortis plosives. No matter what kind of reverse-aspiration or reverse-affrication I try to give them, I can't make them sound convincing when played backwards.

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    @myl: just give a link to the downloadable audio file. The RSS version of your post already does this. Then anybody with any Web browser — even Lynx — can download and play it, assuming they have the right software installed (which they probably do).

    On topic: I remember a similar feat of contrived pronunciation being featured on the NBC proto-"reality" show "Real People" back in the early 1980s.

  8. John said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    I literally don't have Flash on my MacBook Pro and the audio plays just fine.

    What I do have is the HTML5 and HTML5 Audio extensions, which make that possible (the former the video and the latter the audio).

    So, no need for Flash at all.

  9. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    Like Ian Catford, Yuen Ren-Chao was a master at talking backwards in this sense. Uncanny. But that was half a century ago.

  10. Paolo said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

    I am Italian and this is a game we sometimes used to play as kids, but obviously Italian "phonological" spelling makes it much easier to do.

  11. Circe said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    This kind of backward talking (reversing spellings) is a a recurrent trope in Batman/Superman comics (and perhaps other media) in which the sorceress/magician Zatanna's spells are just imperative sentences with spellings reversed.

  12. maidhc said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 3:25 am

    There are two kinds of talking backwards. One is based on spelling, and was commonly used in the London markets back to the 19th century. Hence words like "yobbo" ("boy").

    Another kind is based on sound, so it probably doesn't go back before magnetic tape. I remember someone I knew back in the 1970s who would exclaim "Eibdoog" on entering a room, and so on, on the assumption that one of his henchman was recording the event for future reversal.

    In the 1980s another friend of mine built a pioneering digital sound processor dedicated to, among other things, reversal. He composed a number of musically palindromic songs, which he used to sing backwards first and then replay forwards. Another feat of his was to convince another friend to abandon his birth name and replace it with the reversed sobriquet "Ramwood Beets". ("Steve" etc., things don't sound quite the same when reversed.)

    Let's not forget the immortal Steve Goodman:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMSMAjg2zCU

    (My reversing friend and I saw him do this song back in the day. What a genius. A real shame he wasn't around longer.)

  13. DEP said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    Yrots gnitseretni.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    I saw Ian do this trick many times, and usually not by practicing in advance. People would give him a short text, he would transcribe it and essentially do what this girl is doing, only with IPA. There was usually a minute or two of watching him silently, or almost silently, explore the pronunciation as he transcribed, and then he would turn on the Wollensak and go. The hardest part to capture, as you might expect, was the intonation contour.

    It was interesting to hear one of the words given in the video as the spelling pronunciation "omni-science," and hear her repeat it right back and reverse it. It made me wonder how much practicing she had done with word lists. (The prompts came too fast to be spontaneous–they had to be working off a list too, I would think.)

  15. Kylopod said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    I have a vague recollection from eons ago of a man getting some publicity for this sort of talent. I remember seeing a clip of him on the Chevy Chase Show (a very, very, very short-lived talk show by the comedian in the early '90s), and he did a backwards version of, among other things, the name Chevy Chase (which he pronounced "ee sack ee veck") and the rhyme "How much wood could a woodchuck…"

  16. MattF said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    I had an aunt who could do this. Even when she was drunk.

  17. sedeer said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    Impressive trick. :) It's interesting that although she is reversing the spelling, she reversed "dolphin" as "niflod" (or "niphlod") instead of "nih-plod". I guess that says something about her representation of the word, at least in the context of this feat.

  18. Nick Lamb said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Well, although this is all "ungodly complicated" at least you can make it somebody else's problem to handle the complexity in question.

    http://wpmu.org/10-beautiful-html5-video-audio-players-for-wordpress/

    I don't run Flash on this computer, and I wouldn't have been able to hear the audio in any case because it seems to be MPEG audio layer 3, which is also not available on this computer. But it's the thought that counts, I'm sure I'm not missing very much without the actual audio.

  19. Shirley Steele said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    Alyssa's amazing feat is orthography dependent, so presumably anybody who reads could develop this facility, at least a little. But what about people who for some reason don't have access to the orthography—like the blind or those who can't read. Presumably their concept of "talking backwards" would be based solely on the auditory signal. And could you do some version of this in a language with an ideographic writing system?

    And what about the deaf? They would have access to the orthography, but would have a problem producing the sound sequence. I wonder if there might be an ASL equivalent of "talking backwards."

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    …the final affricate should be treated as a unit (a sensible view that the powers-that-be in the IPA have apparently never been able to accept…)

    What ever happened to IPA ligatures like /ʤ/? According to Wikipedia they are "no longer official IPA usage," but I still see them (and use them.

    The original sin of the IPA is that was created in France, by an association of foreign-language teachers (L'Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes), to help French people learn foreign languages. Since French lost its affricates by the 13th century, its speakers normally articulate affricates from other languages as a plosive-fricative sequence; just listen to a French person pronounce words like jazz, tsar, caoutchouc or pizza. And somehow, when the said association went international, the French convention was kept.

  21. Stephen Mulraney said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    My father and I used to have short conversation like this when I was a kid. We're both a bit rusty now, but as I recall, the trick wasn't that hard to reproduce after the initial practice phrase. I successfully taught it to a few friends, too. As the responses here indicate, people were generally inordinately impressed.

    (By talking backwards, I mean what Alyssa is doing, but for sentences: reversing each word in its place in the sentence, so that 'I can talk backwards' becomes more or less 'I nack clat straw cabs')

  22. Elliott P said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    They're not working off a list. They're just sitting at a gas station, calling out things they see out the window. It looks like the girl in the back got "omniscience" off something that she was reading, although not a list since she barely said anything else.

  23. naddy said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    if you believe that the final affricate should be treated as a unit (a sensible view that the powers-that-be in the IPA have apparently never been able to accept…).

    That's what the tie bar is for if you need to make the distinction: d͡ʒ

  24. John Lawler said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    Ian always said that all he did was transcribe it with all the aspirations and lenitions, etc, and then simply pronounce the IPA. It works. Honest. I learned to do Humpty Dumpty backwards for /fnɛk sklæs/ when I started teaching, and then demonstrated it in Ian's class after I joined the faculty at Michigan to show that anybody who has learned phonetics can talk backwards. I think I could still do it, with some practice.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    @Elliott P: How do you know they're not working off a list? Your ESP is strong.

  26. Elliott P said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    @ Rod Johnson it's clear she's done some before, such as "McDonald's." But I'm around kids this age all the time. It's clear what is extemporaneous and what is not.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    Huh, I'm around kids this age all the time too (having some, teaching many more), and it's not clear to me. I'm not saying it's rehearsed, only that "reversing" some of these words aren't new to her, and maybe to her siblings/friends.

  28. Philip said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    Back in graduate school, I learned that a good test for eidetic memory was the ability to recite the alphabet backwords. People with eidetic memory can simply visualize the A through Z sequence and, quite literally, read it back.

    My wife can do this, and it always blows me away: I can't get past z, y, x, duh.

  29. Antariksh Bothale said,

    January 31, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

    There's another way of reversing a word, which would make sense in languages written in an abugida script, such as Hindi.

    Here, we keep the vowel attached to the consonant while reversing a word—jaanaa would become naajaa instead of aanaaj

    जाना–>नाजा

  30. J. Goard said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 7:36 am

    I can also do this easily, as well as produce a continuous stream of nonsense anagrams for a word of pretty much indefinite length…these skills more or less come along with being a high-level tournament Scrabble player.

    Actual phonetics/phonology is more or less out the window in the context of Scrabble study and recall, where top players have memorized perhaps as many as 10,000 acceptable words (inflectional bases) for which they don't know the meaning. If there's any chance that a word's letters might get transposed in my brain, I memorized it orally with the most inauthentic but unambiguous spelling pronunciation.

  31. Elliott P said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    @Rod Johnson No argument there. Perhaps we were talking past each other. I thought you meant someone was holding up a list off camera, from which the boy and girl were reading. You meant "list" more generally. I would not be surprised that she'd done this trick while sitting and waiting in a car many times before!

  32. SusanPRH said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    When I speak there are something like subtitles running through my mind. It is not that I am reading off the script: it is created contemporaneously. It means for example that I am always aware of saying words whose spelling I am unsure of. I have no idea why this happens — I have always had a rubbish memory and the script has never been any help in that regard; these days when with advancing age I more and more often forget what I was going to say mid-sentence, and then realize I have also forgotten what I have already said, the script has vanished as it always does… But the script is still there in the moment.

    For this reason, I suspect I could have "talked backwards" when I was a child and teenager; indeed I once spent a couple of minutes doing it, but was not charmed by the results and gave up. Perhaps if I had been as good as Alyssa I would have persisted. My children, now about forty, still crack up at the thought of what the London space called "Finsbury Park" is backwards.

    Is this skill related to being able to read upside down?

  33. Haukur Þ. said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

    I'm pretty good at (real phonetic) backwards speech, but the one thing that I can't master is voiceless/fortis plosives. No matter what kind of reverse-aspiration or reverse-affrication I try to give them, I can't make them sound convincing when played backwards.

    I used to play with reversing words and I was happy with my plosive results. The trick is probably that Icelandic already has both aspirated and pre-aspirated plosives – when talking backwards I just had to flip that switch, if you will.

  34. Nick said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    I find it interesting that the reversed version of "garage" sounds like it is only one syllable to me, when the actual sound is clearly two syllables. Does anybody else get this?

  35. Dan T. said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    @Circe: DC Comics' Zatanna picked up that skill from her father, Zatara, who made his debut in Action Comics #1 alongside Superman (but in a different story in that comic, so the two didn't meet).

  36. Cornell Campbell said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    I listened to the entirety of Alyssa's video in reverse, and while you are a hundred percent correct that what she's doing is not BACKWARDS(X), there is one phrase that she says that does actually sound correct when reversed (or re-reversed, as it were) and that's when she says "American Flag" backwards.

    You can hear it both ways here: http://public.crnl.me/alyssa/

  37. Barry Solow said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

    This clip, of a backwards-talker named Julia, culminates with a backward-replay of something she has just said:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_zC2A1E7M8&feature=related

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    My kids came up with true backwards pronunciation, spontaneously, on encountering the free-software program Audacity. They got remarkably good at it.

  39. Brooklyn said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    Oh yay! I seriously though what I could do, no one else could!
    I developed this skill when I was 10 just by starting of hearing a word and picture it backwards in my head. After about 2 months of doing that I started saying the words backwards.

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