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Linguistics professor at BYU explains the ‘yanny’ vs ‘laurel’ debate

Posted at 7:21 PM, May 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-16 21:21:50-04

PROVO, Utah -- It's the next great debate sweeping the internet: A simple voice recording of one single word. Some swear they hear "laurel," while others bet their life on "yanny."

Now, a linguistics professor is breaking down the mind-blowing phenomenon and why some hear it one way, and others hear it differently.

"People think, 'C'mon, it's right there in the recording—how come you can't hear it my way?'" said David Eddington, who teaches linguistics at Brigham Young University.

He watched Wednesday as the internet lost its mind over the recording, which features a man saying the word, 'laurel.'

Eddington pulled up the sound waves from that recording on his computer, and dissected the audio cues in the word.

"Some of the cues are not... either they're missing or they're ambiguous," Eddington explained.

That means the man says the word in a vague enough way that it's hard to tell exactly what he's saying.

Eddington recorded himself saying the words, "laurel" and "yanny." The waves looked dramatically different from each other, and from the viral recording.

He described how what people pick up when they hear that vague word comes down to our brain process.

"It's not just in the signal that we're receiving in through our ears, it's how our brain perceives it," he explained.

Our brain fills in what it thinks it's hearing, and that's why he indicated we perceive the pronunciation a certain way that can be the opposite of what someone else hears.

"Some people's brains pull out certain cues, and use them to identify it as 'yanny'" he said.

Others pull out the cues to identify it as the word "laurel."

One last factor, Eddington added, is the device we listen to the word on. He said different devices like a phone, TV or computer may transmit the sound in ways that make us hear the word one way or the other.

While there is a method to the madness, the recording sure is sparking a fun and silly debate.