I’m a little late in informing you, but the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society (“Our interests extend to the wondrous, the curious, the singular, the esoteric, the arcane, and the sometimes hazy frontier between the plausible and the implausible — anything that Father Kircher might find cool if he were alive today”) has been having a Language Week, featuring the Chromatographic Writing of the Edo, Victor the Conversational (and Visionary) Budgie, Foreign Accent Syndrome, Alternate Alphabets (check out Betamaze, “which turns every text into a unique maze”), and Speaking Backwards: A Case Study. The last reports on an article of the same title, originally printed in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (Volume 67, Issue S1 [1980], p. S94):

A 31-year-old male philosophy professor (Prof. B) who can speak backwards fluently, at a normal rate, was studied. To define Prof. B’s ability, recordings, spectrograms, and phonetic transcriptions were obtained. In an impromptu backwards monologue and in passages, sentences, and isolated words translated into backwards speech from written and spoken input sources in real time, Prof. B maintained the original word order but reversed the order of phonemes within each word. These reversals were not always phonetically complete, e.g., diphthongs were not reversed. Forward intonation was preserved. Although reversals were primarily phonologically based (e.g., silent consonants were rarely pronounced), there was a partial reliance on orthography even with spoken input (e.g., “xerox” was reversed as [ksɔriks], not [skariz])…

They link to an amazing YouTube video of Ari Gorman, “a contemporary master of the esoteric art of backwards speaking,” with subtitles (and played backwards afterward so you can see he’s not cheating). Thanks to John Emerson for the tip!


  1. marie-lucie says

    Wow! It is interesting that diphthongs were not reversed – this actually proves that diphthongs are phonemes, i.e. perceived as single units of the language, even though phonetically – according to their physical characteristics and what happens in the mouth while they are produced – they are complex sounds. Also interesting is the pronunciation of what is written x – there must be a perception of the canonical ks effect (as at the end of “xerox” as a quasi-phoneme, with a mingling of auditory and visual information in the brain – and also the “word” perception conditioning the presence of stress. Thank you and John Emerson for the link.

  2. Ari Gorman’s doing complete reversals of the entire string of text rather than Prof B’s “original word order but reversed…phonemes within each word” (at least in the first half of the video, which is all I could get). This would have to be rehearsed, no?
    Several years ago on Prairie Home Companion’s “Talent from towns under x thousand” (where x is some small number I don’t remember), there was a teenage girl who could do an incredibly fluent version of Prof B’s backwards speaking. Since word order was normal, you could actually convince yourself after a few listens that it’d be possible to learn how to do it yourself.

  3. I love those AK guys! Nothing on Kircher himself, with his complete working-out of the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs over 1000s of pages. All completely wrong, completely. Except for one word.

  4. That’s nothing! On Twin Peaks they had a guy who could speak backwards-speak forwards! And he foretold the future too.
    Conrad: What was the word he got right?

  5. “mem” = water.

  6. For translating hieroglyphic words or texts, wouldn’t it be closer to say that Kircher got none of it right? Each sign turns into an entire mystical phrase.
    Separately, he derived the Greek and Coptic alphabets from hieroglyphs. It is here that he got one close: Ⲙ / Μ from ⲙⲱⲓ (ⲙⲟⲟⲩ) ‘water’, shown as two wavy lines. It’s usually three (need hieroglyphic Unicode), mw. Only partial credit, since M more likely comes from the single wavy line, phonetic n from nt.
    In fairness, he was responsible for the first Coptic grammar in the West and did correctly realize that it was a descendant of Egyptian.
    He also did Chinese. Water signs like 江 are pictures of schools of fish. (Not those but some others here.)

  7. “Schools of fish”? That beats the Dao 道 as Jacob’s ladder (or was that Kircher too?).

  8. The reading for next week will be Paracelsus. The week after that, Swedenborg. Students should be able to explain the relationships between these three systems at the midterm.

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