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In 2015, the Internet became divided over a dress that some thought was blue and black, while others believed it was white and gold. Now millions of listeners are arguing over a single word uttered in a three-second audio clip. Some hear it as a deep male voice saying “Yanny,” while others maintain it’s a higher-pitched sound saying “Laurel.” Posted on Reddit by 18-year-old student Roland Camry, the meme became an overnight sensation after YouTuber and social media influencer Cloe Feldman shared it to her Instagram and Twitter on May 15, 2018, inquiring: “What do you hear — “Yanny” or “Laurel?”
Experts say the reason for the controversy most likely stems from the fact that the recording is noisy, with lots of different frequencies captured. Those whose brains emphasize higher frequency sounds hear "Yanny," while those that perceive lower frequencies better believe it’s "Laurel."
So is there a right answer? Technically, the clip is saying “laurel.” However, those that discern “Yanny” should not necessarily worry. Chelsea Sanker, a phonetician at Brown University, asserts that the voice does not speak in speech patterns we’re as familiar with, making it more difficult to understand. The reason people hear one or the other — and sometimes both — is because the recording is ambiguous, forcing our brains to deduce how it’s supposed to sound based on previous experiences. Some experts believe it also could be an age issue. Older adults often start to lose their hearing in the high-frequency range, which means they probably hear the correct word, while most younger people hear it as “Yanny.”
Dana Boebinger, a Ph.D. student at Harvard and MIT studying auditory perception has another theory. She tweets, "The main reason (I suspect) people hear this differently is because different headphones and speakers filter the frequencies of the sound in different ways."
This is similar to the 2015 dress debate, where low-quality lighting impacted the colors we saw, or even with Rubin’s Vase, a popular optical illusion where two figures in profile also resemble a vase. “The reason these differential illusions like the dress and this recording are interesting is because they show how the brain does this, namely by combining incoming information with assumptions,” said Pascal Wallisch, a professor of psychology at New York University.
The story of how this obscure recording became a viral sensation is almost as exciting as the audio clip itself. It all began on May 11, when Katie Hetzel, a freshman at Flowery Branch High School in Georgia, decided to look up the meaning of the word "Laurel" on Vocabulary.com. However, when she played the audio, she heard “Yanny.” Hetzel says, "I asked my friends in my class, and we all heard mixed things.” Curious to get the opinion of a wider audience, she posted the audio clip on her Instagram story. Fernando Castro, a senior at the same school, decided to republish it as a poll on the same platform. “She recorded it and put it on her story then I remade the video and posted it," Castro told Wired. "Katie and I have been going back and forth, and we both agree that we had equal credit on it." When his friend Camry heard the audio, he decided to post it to Reddit, from where it was picked up by Feldman and the rest, as they say, is history.
Also, while the recording of what has become Vocabulary.com’s most popular word may sound computer-generated, it was made by an opera singer, a member of the original cast of Cats on Broadway! The company said when they started in 2007, they sought out opera singers to record over 200,000 words because they can read words written in an international phonetic alphabet, a standardized representation of sounds in any spoken language.
Do you hear “Laurel,” “Yanny,” or something else entirely? Let us know in the comments below!
Resources: Wired.com, the verge.com,buzzfeed.com