Yanny? Laurel? A Linguist Explains Why Half the Internet Is Hearing It All Wrong

Friday, 18 May 2018 - 11:15AM
Friday, 18 May 2018 - 11:15AM
Yanny? Laurel? A Linguist Explains Why Half the Internet Is Hearing It All Wrong
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Image credit: YouTube

It's that stupid black and blue dress all over again. I mean, white and gold? If you've been on social media at all this week, you've seen and probably participated in the debate over whether a digital voice is saying the word "yanny" or the word "laurel."


Believe it or not, the world is not gaslighting you—people are actually hearing the opposite of what you are hearing, and there is actually a scientific explanation for it.

Linguist Rachel Gutman offers up the most valid explanation we've heard yet.


"When you speak, you're producing sound waves that are shaped by the length and shape of your vocal tract, which includes your vocal folds, throat, mouth, and nose," Gutman said. 


Presenting a spectrograph of the sound clip, she says resonant frequencies of human vocal tracts (formants) and can differ between males and females. But, wait—that still doesn't explain why people are hearing different things. Allow Brown University phonetician Chelsea Sanker to get us even closer to the truth.

According to Sanker, the voice in the clip is "not prototypical" of either word.


"The speaker's tongue isn't touching the back of their soft palate (the velum), as many American English speakers do when they say an l," Gutman explained. "The middle consonant is definitely not an n, Sanker said, but you might hear one because the vowel in front of it sounds particularly nasal. People who hear laurel are hearing a syllabic l in the second syllable, which has some similarities to the vowel sound at the end of yanny."

"Plenty of things could be influencing your interpretation of yanny/laurel," Gutman added, "including your dialect and whether you listened to the recording over a speaker or headphones. People have a tendency to try to match the sounds they hear onto real words that they've heard before, like laurel. But reading yanny first, since it appears on the left side of the poll, could have primed listeners to hear it over laurel." 

Now that you kind of understand (it's still laurel), maybe you can explain this total curveball that surfaced because of the yanny vs. laurel debate: Is this toy saying "green needle" or "brainstorm"? 

Now think of the opposite word and listen to it again to have what's left of your mind completely blown.

Weird Science