A debate has been raging across the internet for the last few days. What does the audio in this viral video say—is it Laurel, or Yanny (which is not even a word)?
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
It’s entirely possible, for scientific reasons laid out by my colleague Zoë Schlanger in her story May 15, that you might perceive the audio here as either Laurel or Yanny. But if you’re hearing Yanny, you’re empirically wrong.
Beyond the fact that Yanny is, again, not a word, Virginia Tech linguistics professor Abby Walker seems to have nailed down the source of the audio file. “There are lots of unnatural things going on, but it almost looks like there are two files on top of each other,” she said in a blog post. “At first I thought someone had intentionally made a weird file to mess with people, but apparently is just a bad automatic synthesis from vocabulary.com.”
Walker told Quartz over email that a thorough dissection on Twitter of the audio makes it seem as if it’s two sounds blended specifically to fool our brains, but it seems likely that it was just poorly processed audio from the phone of the person filming the original Instagram story by playing the sound through speakers. “My guess is it is not two files on top of each other,” Walker wrote. “Rather, there’s some ambiguity in the lower frequency range that allows for two interpretations.” Lots of levels of sounds being recorded will lead to degradation of the quality of the audio itself.
If you go to the vocabulary.com listing for “Laurel,” you’ll hear something you’ve probably heard hundreds of times already this week. You’ll also notice that the site has no listing for Yanny, because—and we can’t stress this enough—it is not a word.
But that doesn’t mean your ears are deceiving you if you’re hearing Yanny. As Walker explains:
There is always ambiguity in the signal, and there are lots of studies, including my own, showing how different types of context affect what word or sound people hear. Contexts like: do you think it’s a woman or a man speaking? What shape is the person making with their mouth? Are you sitting in a car or in a lab? Are you thinking about Australia or New Zealand? etc. What everyone’s excited about here is the fact that we’re all hearing this differently, and it doesn’t feel ambiguous. Depending on their ears or hearing strategy, or the quality of the equipment they’re listening through, different people are being more influenced more by lower or higher frequency information.
It does mean, however, that you’re wrong.