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So Which Is It, Yanny Or Laurel?

Originally published on May 16, 2018 7:06 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We all know that America is a divided country. Well, this week, it became a little more divided thanks to this word.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Laurel.

SHAPIRO: Obviously Yanny.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's Laurel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Laurel.

CORNISH: Ari...

SHAPIRO: It's definitely not Laurel.

CORNISH: No, I'm - me and the rest of America, I think, think it's Laurel.

SHAPIRO: I've listened to this word so many times, and I cannot hear Laurel.

CORNISH: OK. We are not the only ones on social media staking out positions on this. We decided to dig into what's actually happening. And on the line, we have Lee Miller. He's the associate professor in neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis. Welcome to the program.

LEE MILLER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: All right. Lee Miller, just so we can get all of our biases out on the table, what do you hear when we play this word?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Laurel.

SHAPIRO: Yanny, obviously.

MILLER: It's obviously Laurel. No question.

SHAPIRO: What (laughter)?

CORNISH: OK. All right. So Ari claims he's hearing Yanny.

SHAPIRO: I'm definitely hearing - not Yonny (ph), Yanny.

CORNISH: Yanny. OK. I'll take your word for it. But I understand that it is possible for people to hear two completely different words, and it has to do with the frequency?

MILLER: Evidently that's what differentiates the Laurel versus Yanny, or Yanny here. Yeah. What you say is true. I mean, we don't really experience the world as it is, but we experience our brain's best guess. And the cues that we get from the world are often more ambiguous than we realize. So not only is our brain constantly unconsciously filling in gaps, repairing errors, noisy bits based on the context, but it's also making assumptions about a talker's voice - their accent or their idiosyncrasies in pronunciation.

I think, in this case, we don't have much context, for one. We can't hear the word in a sentence. There's some noise in higher frequencies that might seem to influence people to hear the false perceptive, Yanny.

SHAPIRO: Wait; wait; wait; wait. You just described Yanny as false, and I would like to say that it is not false. Yanny is very real. I understand that an L sound and an R sound are kind of similar. A B and a P are kind of similar. But the N in Yanny is nothing like the R in Laurel. So why are we hearing an N as an R, and vice versa?

MILLER: Yeah, I agree. And I was looking at - before we talked here, I was looking really quick at where the power, the energy is in the different frequencies - during the N and the R. And I think that's one of the moments where there's some of this noise in the recording, which isn't coming from his pronunciation, but it's in there nonetheless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Laurel.

MILLER: And that's what's throwing your ear off. But it's not throwing my ear off because not only do we - is there ambiguity in the physics of the world, but we also - our perceptual systems have different sensitivities, too. So I think in my case, I can't hear high frequencies very well, but you can. And that's probably going to go some way to explain the difference in our percepts, too.

SHAPIRO: Is there a right answer to this question?

MILLER: I think, in this case, if we can track down the actual recording, we can establish that. But it's not going to stop us from arguing about it, is it? It's like the gold and the blue dress, right?

CORNISH: So true.

MILLER: Which is obviously white and gold.

CORNISH: Yes, exactly (laughter).

MILLER: Obviously.

CORNISH: And not blue and black, as the other half of the Internet thought at the time.

MILLER: No. No, no.

SHAPIRO: Lee Miller of the University of California at Davis. Thank you, although, no thank you for siding with Audie over me.

CORNISH: And what he means by that is thank you for proving me correct.

MILLER: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: OK, OK, OK. It's come to my attention that the New York Times and Wired magazine each tracked down what they call the actual answer to this question.

CORNISH: And the answer is?

SHAPIRO: It pains me to say, apparently, there was a high school student who played the online dictionary audio file for the word...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Laurel.

SHAPIRO: ...Laurel, and that that is what we are listening to - somebody who falsely recorded the sound Yanny on the word Laurel.

CORNISH: I don't think that was the answer there (laughter).

SHAPIRO: That's the answer I'm going with.

CORNISH: Yeah. OK. Well, Ari, I appreciate being right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.