The Great Laurel vs. Yanny Divide Didn't Have to Happen, Says Linguist

All that fuss for nothing.

Like the infamous Dress Illusion before it, the Laurel versus Yanny meme of May 2018 drove the internet wild. It all began with one infuriating sound bite, which we listened to ad nauseum, trying to figure out what the heck the two-syllable word actually was: Laurel or Yanny? Laurel or Yanny?! LAUREL OR YANNY? The ambiguity was infuriating. A scientist said it didn’t have to be.

When Inverse wrote about the meme when it first went viral, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa assistant professor of linguistics Rory Turnbull, Ph.D., explained that the divisive audio clip, featured in the video above, was actually not like the Dress Illusion. That meme firmly divided people into blue and gold camps. In contrast, some people could hear both Yanny and Laurel in the sound clip, suggesting the existence of an auditory “middle ground.”

This is #16 on Inverse‘s 25 Most WTF Stories of 2018.

It all came down to how a person perceives the frequencies that make up a word, Turnbull explained.

What we hear is made up of many individual sound waves of different frequencies that we perceive at the same time. Usually, said Turnbull, there are three main frequencies, which was indeed the case with the Laurel or Yanny sound clip. The reason it’s so divisive, however, is because some people hear certain frequencies and ignore others.

The graph below shows the frequencies in the clip. As Inverse reported previously, the orange and yellow parts of the graph show high-intensity frequencies — the ones that stand out. The way an individual parses the orange and yellow parts determines whether they hear Yanny, Laurel, or both.

laurel versus yanny
The Laurel or Yanny meme divides people along differences in perception, says a linguistics expert.

Out of the three main frequencies, the word in question has two very low frequencies (in the 500-700 Hz) range that, for some people, may be perceived separately. Those people, said Turnbull, will likely hear “Laurel” because of the “ah” sound that those two frequencies make.

But for people who hear those frequencies as a single sound, he explained, will hear “Yanny.” Combined with the third, higher frequency, the two smushed-together frequencies (perceived as a single one) make a very different sound. “If you have a very high second frequency and a relatively low frequency,” said Turnbull, “that sounds like a yuh.”

By the end of the meme’s frustrating life, we learned that all that debate was for naught. It all began with a voice recording from Vocabulary.com depicting the correct pronunciation of — sorry ‘bout it — Laurel.

As 2018 draws to a close, Inverse is counting down the 25 stories that made us go WTF. Some are gross, some are amazing, and some are just, well, WTF. In our ranking from least to most WTF, this has been #16. Read the original article here.

Watch the full 25 WTF countdown in the video below.