Inverse methods are used to investigate whether the observed changes in El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) character since the 1970 s climate shift are consistent with a change in the linear ENSO dynamics. Linear Inverse Models (LIMs) are constructed from tropical sea surface temperature (SST), thermocline depth, and zonal wind stress anomalies from the periods 1958-1977 and 1978-1997. Each LIM possesses a single eigenmode that strongly resembles the observed ENSO in frequency and phase propagation character over the respective periods. Extended stochastically forced simulations using these and the LIM from the combined period are then used to test the hypothesis that differences in observed ENSO character can be reproduced without changes in the linear ENSO dynamics. The frequency and amplitude variations of ENSO seen in each period can be reproduced by any of the three LIMs. However, changes in the direction of zonal SST anomaly propagation in the equatorial Pacific cannot be explained within the paradigm of a single autonomous stochastically forced linear system. This result is suggestive of a possible fundamental change in the dynamical operator governing ENSO and supports the utility of zonal phase propagation, rather than ENSO frequency or amplitude, for diagnosing changes in ENSO dynamics. Key Points Observed changes in the direction of SST propagation imply altered ENSO dynamics ENSO amplitude/frequency changes are not discernible from natural variability Linear Inverse Models capture the 1970s shift in ENSO character. (c)2013. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.