Mystery Language

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Can anyone determine what language this woman is speaking?

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  1. Faoladh said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

    It sounds like Finnish.

  2. Keith said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:11 am

    It sounds like there are only about five consonants and three vowels… And the repetition makes me think that she's repeating some sort of ritual text.

    Hmmm… Hawaiian?

  3. marc said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 1:38 am

    As the other poster noted, there's a small number of consonants and vowels. That makes it sound very Polynesian to me.

  4. Zora said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:12 am

    I speak one Polynesian language (Tongan) and have smatterings of another (Hawaiian). That is not any sort of Polynesian language.

  5. Steve said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    With the limited number of vowels and consonants it sounds to me like someone 'speaking in tongues'.

  6. Mikke said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:53 am

    Not Suomi; too few words stressed on the first syllable.

    (Iambic/anapestic rather than trochaic/dactylic, to put it in poetic meter terms.)

    I hear what you mean; I wanted to place it in the indigenous Finno-Ugric category. But the repetitive singsong and restricted consonants pulled me back.

    Perhaps it was just the reader's style, but the content sounded rather ritualized to me. Stress on the last syllable…something makes me want to guess an Austronesian language.

  7. Simon K said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    It's not clear from your post whether you know the answer to this and have set it as a test for your readers, or whether you don't know the answer and are eliciting our help. If the latter, it may be worth also asking at the Omniglot Blog – They have a "Mystery Language" quiz every week.

  8. Martin Ball said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:49 am

    As it's listed under Quizzes, my guess is that the answer is known and this is a test for us!

  9. Simon P said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:50 am

    I was thinking Toki Pona, but it doesn't seem quite right. Am I imagining, or does it seem to do plurals by reduplication? Sounds a bit like Malay to me. Austronesian, then?

  10. tanadrin said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 6:27 am

    The repetitiveness reminds me of glossolalia, but the only natural language it sounds like to me is Finnish.

  11. Sal said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 7:35 am

    It doesn't sound like the Finnish that I have heard except for the k sounds. I want it to be Euskara.

  12. Jarkko Hietaniemi said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:10 am

    Native Finnish speaker here: this is definitely not Finnish.

    The small repertoire of phonemes is curious. Also the words sound shortish but that might be caused by the stress. My bet would be the Malay direction.

    Here's a wild indirect unsubstantiated guess: the person reading is not actually a native speaker of the whatever language? That would explain the odd cadence.

  13. Sili said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    If glossolalia it's certainly the most uncharismatic version I've ever heard.

    To me it sounds like a list being read out.

  14. Phillip Minden said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    Something North Vanuatu?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    This does not sound like a natural language to me. I cannot pick out any regular, repeated words or grammatical patterns. It seems, rather, like some sort of manipulated, altered language. In trying to determine what it might be, I thought of Pig Latin, but the manipulations would be much more complicated than those employed in Pig Latin. Then I thought of kabbalistic language, and, indeed, there are passages that sound Hebraic or Semitic to me.

    I think that those commenters who mentioned glossolalia or ritual language were headed in the right direction. The cadences and rhythms are not right for natural language either. Often she starts with something relatively simple and then builds it up into more complex structures.

    With these thoughts in mind, I turned to the article on "Secret Language" in Wikipedia.

    Here we find:


    Secret language may refer to:

    Cryptography, the practice and study of hiding information

    Language game, a system of manipulating spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear

    Ceremonial or ritual language, in cases where only the initiated learn the language

    Cant (language), also known as cryptolect



    This is as far as I have gotten now, and I offer these suggestions to my colleagues in hopes that they might inspire further considerations along these lines, perhaps as part of a breakfast experiment. Speaking of which, I need to go have my late breakfast right now.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    Another word on artificial languages before I go to breakfast.

    When I applied to the Peace Corps, I had to take an elaborate examination, one part of which tested ability to learn foreign languages. I remember that it consisted of a long passage of a completely artificial language, but one that was constructed according to regular rules and patterns. After reading the passage, we were asked to reply to a series of questions that elicited our ability to make sense of the regularities inherent in this made-up language.

    That was one of the most fascinating and challenging examinations I've ever taken in my life. I really enjoyed picking out the recurring phonetic, lexical, grammatical, and syntactic patterns. At the end of that part of the exam, I also remember reflecting that the person who made it up must have been very smart.

  17. Phillip Minden said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    Yes, my first impression was also something like Pig Latin, and with another sort of intonation and an American artikulationsbasis I'd have gone for that. But it could be couting, or the shipping forecast.

  18. Keith said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    My daughter came home from school last year, so when she was eleven, talking to me in a language she called Bong, that she and a friend use to have secret conversations.

    After two or three sentences, I figured it out, and started speaking it back to her. If this is a secret language, it's more complex that Bong.

    The speaker in the recording yawns on at least a couple of occasions. I would have imagined that if this was nonesense that had been given to the speaker, she would have been making a conscious effort to pronounce what would be difficult words, and that she would be very alert. I mentioned ritual language, and in that I'd include bedtime stories and fairy tales. I know that I can't read a fairy tale out loud from a book without feeling sleepy.

    I don't speak Finnish, but I can recognise it and I'm certain that this is not Finnish or any language in which I have very basic knowledge.

    I would eliminate the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, Bahasa Indonesia and Malaya, not any of the Sino Tibatan languages I've heard, not Turkish or Hungarian… From looking at written Basque, I'd say it's not that, either.

    I don't know any North or South American indigenous languages, though, or Inuktituk. Tell me it's that, or Chippewa, Ojibwe or Cree, and I'll believe you.

  19. Ross Presser said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    Is it Telugu? Seems to have a sufficiently small number of consonants. (I tried to transcribe some of the words, and consulted Google; one of the links was a list of Telugu songs.)

  20. Rube said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    It does sound a bit like Inuktitut, but I can't make out any actual words: doesn't mean much, though, given how far I am from even the little I knew.

  21. Phillip Minden said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    Ross, I see why, but listen to some random Telugu clip on YouTube.

  22. WR said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    Maybe an Uto-Aztecan language, like a variety of Nahuatl?

  23. Anthony Hope said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    Hmm. Kinda reminds me of this question:

  24. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    The first part sounds to me like a litany, with words often repeated with different case-endings or conjugations. The utterances seem to be grouped in threes. After about 5:00 it sounds like stories introduced with occasional emphasized titles.I hear lateral Ls like Inuit or Welsh and glottal stops like Polynesian.

  25. Aaron said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    The repetitiveness, prosody, and bored tone of the speaker make it sound like she is reading from a written list. Around the halfway mark she seems to suddenly perk up and utter what might be a few spontaneous sentences, or at least some stuff that sounds less obviously repetitive and ritualized. I have no idea what language this is (if it is one) but that middle portion might be a good place to focus for people who think they have a guess.

  26. chh said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    Sounds like whatever it is lacks bilabial stops but has /m/, which is pretty rare.

    There are also huge stretches without any coronal stops. Sounds like a language game to me too, just because of the unusual, sparse inventory of sounds.

  27. jlr said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    Maybe Cherokee?

  28. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

    I want to say Ladino, but maybe I'm just hearing it through my Romance language ears. I thought I heard her say "el cielo" toward the beginning.

  29. David L said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    Is it the language from the Voynich manuscript?

  30. Anton Sherwood said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

    The pattern m_l_k occurs so many times, it's tempting to suspect Semitic ritual.

  31. chh said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

    After searching around online I ended up playing with this awesome database of South American languages that's searchable by included or excluded phonemes.

    This is a pretty fun way to look typological implications about phoneme inventories :) Has anyone seen pages like this for other regions or language families?

  32. Tayra said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    It does kind of sound Native American to me.. at first I was in the Polynesian camp, but after the first few minutes, that just didn't sound right anymore. It also sounded like she yawned a couple times, so with that plus the cadence, I'd agree she's just reading. But it also feels like she's not a native speaker, somehow… something seems inconsistent, although I can't put my finger on what. It could be an artificial language. Or she's native, but hasn't spoken it since she was little, something like that.

  33. S.T. said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    I'd go for one of the languages spoken in Luzon: Bolinao, Sambali?

    By the way, doesn't the speaker yawn twice?

  34. jk said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    The varied guesses here make me wonder if this is some proposed proto-language.

  35. maidhc said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

    It could possibly be a randomly generated language generated for the purpose of running some kind of test, e.g., to measure interference with another language stream. That could explain the small number of consonants and vowels. There could have been several versions generated to explore whether some interfere more than others. Just a speculation.

  36. Y said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    Sounds like the speaker is reading from a written text.
    Near the beginning, something souns like /sjelo/. Is the beginning the Lord's Prayer in a language of people missionized by Spanish-speakers?

    Or maybe a Papuan language? But there are so many, and some sound very different from each other.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

    From Doug Hitch:

    Not Inuktitut. That has /p. t, k, q/ while the puzzle has just /k/ from those. Lots of other differences, of course.

    My guess is someone speaking English, giving xmas greetings or reading some text, using Hawaiian phonology.

    Meli Kalikimaka

  38. John Swindle said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    At around 8:12 to 8:16 it sounds different. Some foreign words, maybe?

  39. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    At 6:19 she says what sounds an awful lot like "Somalia". Although with the extremely restricted sound inventory it would not be a huge surprise for such a string to show up by chance.

  40. ohwilleke said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    Based upon the low vowel and consonant inventories and the lack of bilabials, the American Indian language Oneida spoken in the NE United States historically seems like a good fit (per WALS). It also has no rhythmic stress rather than a much more common Trochaic rhythm pattern, which might be confused for an Iambic rhythm.

    This language would be something that few people are familiar with first hand, and would also be a language that probably has no exclusive speakers (certainly none as young as the woman on the audio) which could contribute to the "strangeness" of hearing someone who may not speak the language very often.


  41. DCBob said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    Could it be a native North American who is a native English speaker but who has become fairly conversant in a North American Amerind language and is reading a passage from a book, perhaps the Bible translated into that language?

  42. ohwilleke said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    Reviewing the Wikipedia article on the language

    reveals that Oneida is predominantly spoken today in ritual contexts, rather than conversationally, which would fit with the observation of many listeners that it sounds like ritual material that is being read. There were only six exclusive Oneida speakers in 1991 who were still living and about 200-250 who are native speakers – mostly in Ontario, Canada and Green Bay, Wisconsin, which fits with some almost French or Canadian English voice tones early in the recording.

  43. ohwilleke said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

    In light of the cch observation of the /m/, which does figure prominently in the audio but is not found in Oneida, the jlr suggestion of Cherokee which is related linguistically to Oneida, but does have /m/ might be a better fit.

  44. chh said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    Cherokee has /m/ but it only occurs in a small set of words. There's other languages like Tlingit that have no bilabial stops but do have /m/, but the /m/ only shows up by way of place assimilation (I think), which isn't what's going on in this recording- there's lots of /ama/ sequences, for instance.

    The fact that there's (to my ears) no bilabial stops in the recording, and only a couple instances of coronal stops in 10 minutes of talking should have been a clue that an actual natural language was not a possibility, since that kind of language probably doesn't exist at all. I was kind of wondering if it was a speaker of some language who had something wrong with their mouth though!

  45. Zeljko Jokic said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 8:16 pm

    Hi everyone,
    I asked Arnaud to give me some more background on this case with the permission from him and the medium Janet that spoke the "mystery language" to put it in the blog and here it is:

    Origin of the language: This language was produce by native english speaker Janet Mayer, who is a medium practicing in the United States. She can utter this language at will since about 20 years ago. She has never travelled outside the United States. The language was recognized 15 years ago by a shaman named Ipupiara as a Amazonian language – this recording is about 15 year old corresponding to that period. Ipupiara was a native of the tribe from Uru-e Wau Wau tribe from northern Brazil. He held a PhD in Anthropology and was also a consultant to the white house in the US at some point. At least one independent witness was present when he recognized the language, and he conversed with Janet Mayer for several years over the phone and translated her recordings as well as took them to specific tribes. The language, if it proves to be one, could have been Tupi or another language of the Amazon as Ipupiara was fluent in several. Since then Ipupiara has passed.

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