Reverse English

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Just in case you haven't seen this:

[Update — some people seem to be getting an error when they try to play the video above — you may have better luck with the one below:]

What Song is This? Part 3

OneManSho | MySpace Video

I associate this sort of thing, from long ago pre-internet days, with Ian Catford, who was able to do this for new phrases more or less on demand. My experience with his displays of this ability go back so far that the preferred way to demonstrate it was to play a reel-to-reel tape backwards.

And I'm not the only one with this memory of him: looking for a link to Ian on the web, I found this:

Ian is also famous for his amazing ability to repeat speech backwards. When asked about this, he reported that he started studying phonetics at the age of 14, and his phonetic skills helped him to gain a position with the BBC as a radio actor, starting when he was 17 – often speaking in multiple exotic dialects. Also, in a production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, he recorded ""Jabberwocky"" both forwards and in reverse. The BBC reversed his reverse performance and it came out quite intelligibly with an appropriate other-worldly quality.

Alas, the link is to Ian's obituary: he died on Oct. 6, a bit more than three weeks ago.

Requiescat in pace.


  1. Bob Ladd said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    I think Y. R. Chao was noted for being able to do this too.

  2. Anonymous said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    :( When I try to watch the video (either here or directly on youtube), I get an error message.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    @Anonymous, Don't you mean, egassem rorre na teg I, (ebutuoy no yltcerid ro ereh rehtie) oediv eht hctaw ot yrt I nehW ): ?

  4. Alex said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    I get the same error message.

  5. Adrian Mander said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    Mr Anonymous, try / user OneManSho

  6. Acilius said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    gnizama 'nikaerf s'taht!

  7. Graeme said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    If you're hitting error messages (as I did) just ry his earlier three sgnos on the internet: eg

    Might he play the original songs backwards and learn them that way?

    To this untrained ear, the result sounds in places like someone pretending to speak Russian. Is that fair comment? What I like about this is that it lacks the wooop and waarp effects that comes with playing tapes backwards: does anyone know what cause the latter? They are apparent even in the reversed version of this fellow's backward singing.

  8. Peter Seibel said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    Graeme, I'm just guessing here but I suspect the distinctive sounds of audio being played backwards come from sounds that forward consist of a sharp attack and then decay. For instance, imagine the sound of a cymbal crash, it starts all of sudden and quickly fades down to a hiss of white noise and then is no longer audible. Played in reverse you get a slight hiss followed by an abrupt crescendo up to an immediate cutoff. That's an extreme example but there are probably lots of natural sounds with that basic profile.

  9. Michael W said,

    November 1, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    Another of this guy's videos has 100 impressions in 200 seconds. While most are only a single word, they do demonstrate quite a facility with making different sounds.

    I, too, noticed a seemingly Russian sound (at least in the videos I could watch). It makes me wonder if someone speaking Russian phonetically backwards would sound like English to me.

  10. Aviatrix said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 3:12 am

    I hear the Russian "accent" both forward and backwards, with the dark l, and palatized vowels. I thought for a bit that Russian initial sounds that are against English phonology (like кн) were responsible, but now I think he's just making those sounds, in either order.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:04 am

    @Peter Seibel: Yes, the attack/decay profiles of many speech sounds are quite asymmetrical – sudden attack, slow decay – and reversing that is responsible for some of the impression that reverse speech makes. I think that would be true in any language.

    @Aviatrix: Specifically with regard to the dark /l/, this is about English phonology, not backwards speech generally. The /l/ phoneme tends in many varieties of English to be dark in syllable codas (e.g. in peel) and fairly clear in syllable onsets (e.g. in leap). So when you want to produce the phoneme sequence /lip/ so that it will sound like peel when played backwards, you have to make the /l/ dark. (You also have to get the aspiration before the /p/, etc. etc., which is what makes this performance so impressive.)

  12. Aaron Davies said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    I read somewhere that Michael J. Anderson, the Man from Another Place (i.e. the creepy dwarf) on Twin Peaks, already knew how to speak backwards, even before Lynch asked him to.

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