Backwards speech sounds weird

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So this version of Kimberley Guilfoyle at the RNC Monday evening is unfair, but funny:

The reversed audio alone is less compelling, though still striking — here's her peroration, reversed via Audacity:

(The whole original video is here.)

For more on the weirdness of backwards speech, see e.g. here.


  1. Duncan said,

    August 25, 2020 @ 10:28 pm

    Funny video it is. I'd missed it (and while I follow news I'm deliberately skipping the conventions themselves) so thanks. I understand the coverage of her speech a bit better now.

    Years (decades, late 80s) ago when I was in college, I had one of those auto-reversing Walkman-style tape players. I took it apart and rewired the pickup head thru a DPDT switch (double-pole because it was stereo, double-throw for forward and reverse), so I could switch the audio between forward and reverse directions. It was a bit of an engineering project getting the extra wire and the switch to fit inside without blocking any critical mechanisms but I did it… and before digital processing made it easy, too! =:^)

    So I'm quite familiar with reversed audio and even occasionally detect it in special effects and the like. Normal vs. reversed initial attack and termination patterns are particularly easy to pick up, once you've listened to hours of audio (music) both forward and backward, as I did.

    What only hit me now (possibly because most of my previous "reverse" experience was with music, not plain speech) was how similar reverse English and forward Navajo (which I was exposed to in the 80s and still hear occasionally here in Phoenix) sound. I'd suggest it has to do with the Navajo gutturals changing the attack patterns from those we're used to in English (and the Spanish I commonly hear today, and the East African languages I was exposed to as a kid in the 70s), making them sound similar to those of reversed English.

    Does Russian have similar guttural attack patterns? I'm not familiar with it but for limited youtube, etc, but it seems to me it does. Not as heavy as Navajo, however.

    Does the same hold in reverse? Does reversing such languages give them patterns closer to normal English/Spanish/etc, just as reversing English makes it sound (at least to me) like these other languages?

  2. AntC said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 2:08 am

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Guilfoyle's speech. I was on the point of raising it with myl anyway, because to my ear:

    (played forward) it sounds like she's trying to mimic the cadence of Southern black Baptist/gospel ministers. Like a poor imitation of MLK.

    From her biog, it doesn't seem like such speaking style would be a part of her upbringing. Does she usually talk like that? On TV/podcasts? In 'real life' (whatever that might mean in her milieu)?

    Here's Guilfoyle in a more conversational mode:

    What she's aiming for in the RNC speech, I think, is this:


  3. Trogluddite said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 2:27 pm

    Besides the reversed words themselves, a couple of other things stood out to me, both of which heightened the "weirdness".

    The reversed room reverberation (and/or sound amplification in the room) is very distinct. Reverberation and/or echoes which precede the sound source are a staple sound-effect in horror and sci-fi media for suggesting malevolence or hallucination.

    The phrases seem well chosen for the resulting reversed prosodic cues – those with rising pitch, volume, and speed seem especially disturbing!


    August 27, 2020 @ 2:54 am

    Ah, Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    I knew someone in college who could talk backward. More specifically, he could utter a sequence of sounds in such a way that when the utterance was recorded and played back in reverse, it sounded like actual speech.

  6. Terpomo said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 9:10 pm

    Neal, I've tried that. Generally producing something intelligible is as simple as writing out the phrase you want in IPA and then reversing it and reading that. However, you can also record it forwards, play it backwards, imitate that, and play THAT backwards.

  7. Hans Adler said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 5:16 am

    Here is a video of Ylvis (well known internationally from "What Does the Fox Say?") singing in 'Botswana language' = backwards Norwegian before an unsuspecting audience:

    You can turn on English subtitles for the Norwegian. From 3:20 it's played in reverse so it becomes comprehensible.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    As a teenager, I would deliberately play tapes backwards on my Truvox reel-to-reel recorder, and to my young ear it sounded very much as if the speaker were speaking one of the Goedlich family rather than English. Foolishly I never thought to play a recording of Scots Gaelic backwards to see if it might sound like English, so I now have to investigate Adobe Audition (etc) to see if I can achieve that effect digitally.

  9. Daniel Deutsch said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 6:14 am

    Related to Neal and Terpomo: An amusing ear-training exercise is to have a student record a simple phrase (e.g. “one, two, three, four,”) and then play it in reverse. The student then tries to pronounce the reversed phrase, records that, and reverses the new recording, and we see how close it is to the original. It’s quite difficult for most people, but some have an uncanny ability. It’s quite amusing. Try it with a free app like Audacity. Also fun with song phrases.

  10. IMarvinTPA said,

    August 29, 2020 @ 10:38 pm

    There are groups that analyze reverse speech as a type of EVP. The theory is that the subconscious runs sentences backward and influence the forward speech to make certain sounds that can be heard in reverse. It also doesn't lie so you get interesting truths if you look for them. It frequently helps to play things back at like 50% speed.

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