DeKALB – The internet can be a rather divisive domain. Just ask the people who have listened to the viral “Laurel or Yanny” audio clip.
The debate, however, cannot just be chalked up to how well a person’s hearing is or the quality of a computer’s speakers. In an article posted on Northern Illinois University’s College of Health and Human Sciences website, two audiology professors said multiple factors influence how a person hears the word.
Professor Charles Pudrith said the quality of the sound equipment, a person’s hearing and their general exposure to the English language all affect what is heard. He added that it is hard to quantify how much influence the sound equipment has, but he listened to it in three separate ways and heard “Laurel” each time.
Word structure might also affect the mind’s interpretation. Pudrith said when the mind decides that the first sound is an “L,” whether through the pitch of the word or other factors, it is more likely to label the next sound it hears as an “aw” like in “Laura.”
“We hear the sound and we open it to an interpretation of words,” Pudrith said.
He added that younger people are better able to hear higher frequencies, which may be one of the reasons they hear “yanny,” but that isn’t the only thing at work.
“Because there are two other factors that play in, they will create a masking effect where age won’t be a true predictor,” Pudrith said.
According to Wired Magazine, the debate began when a high school student in Georgia was looking up the word “laurel” for her world literature class. When she typed the word into Vocabulary.com and listened to the audio, she instead heard “yanny.”
Pudrith and NIU professor Danica Billingsly said in the article they love phenomena like this and the “what color is the dress” debate, which stemmed from a photo of a dress posted in 2015. The image left viewers divided on whether it was blue and black or white and gold, and forced people to realize their interpretation of something is not the same as everyone else’s.
“If we can accept things we believe to be true, like the color or a dress or the word in a recording, are open to interpretation, then hopefully we can appreciate how important it is to re-evaluate many of our other preconceived truths,” the professors said.