You can stop arguing. The actual word that has spawned millions of arguments this week? It is laurel.
But fear not. People who hear yanny (whatever that means) on a short recording that’s all over the internet are not losing their minds.
Several factors appear to be driving this viral debate of the moment, according to audiologists at Salus University and Main Line Health. Among them is the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, which varies widely from person to person and generally declines with age. But first, the backstory for those who have no idea what we’re talking about.
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
Roland Szabo, an 18-year-old from Lawrenceville, Ga., and a friend were experimenting a few days ago with the automated voice on vocabulary.com that pronounces any word out loud, according to the New York Times. They typed in laurel, and Szabo indeed heard that word. But the friend heard yanny, according to TMZ.com.
Szabo made what he concedes is a low-quality recording of the clip and posted it on Reddit. It then was tweeted by Cloe Feldman, a 20-year-old Floridian who shares fashion and lifestyle tips via social media. A viral storm ensued, recalling the infamous blue dress optical illusion of 2015.
Some hear laurel. Others hear yanny. Still others say they can hear it both ways.
It may depend on a person’s ability to hear high-pitched sounds, said Lindsay Bondurant, director of the Pennsylvania Ear Institute of Salus, in Elkins Park.
Any spoken word is made up of a variety of sounds at different pitches, or frequencies. Even though the original recording is of the word laurel, someone who hears high frequencies especially well may be picking up on higher-pitched components of that word that sound nothing like it — almost as if one were to turn the treble way up on a stereo or mp3 player, she said.
Evidently, there is a higher-pitched “yeh”-like sound hidden somewhere near the beginning of the word laurel (at least in this viral recording), along with an “ee”-like sound near the end — but these higher-pitched sounds are not readily audible for everyone. Likewise, hearing the clip on speakers or headphones with rich bass might skew the sound toward laurel.
The low quality of the recording does not help, she added.
“It’s certainly been the talk of the audiology community for the past 24 hours or so,” Bondurant said.
Catherine Marino, director of the Audiology and Hearing Aid Center at Main Line Health’s Riddle Hospital, agreed that people who are better at hearing lower-pitched sounds may be more likely to hear laurel.
A person’s tendency to hear one word or the other could mean a hearing deficiency in the higher or lower frequencies, but no one should draw that conclusion without a professional examination, Marino said.
But given that the ability to hear higher-pitched sounds can decline with age, it is possible that older people are more likely to hear laurel, said Salus University’s Bondurant.
Indeed, in an informal survey of 20 employees at the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, the average age of those who heard yanny was 29, while the average age for hearing laurel was 37. A triumph of grizzled experience over callow youth?
Then again, Bondurant played the clip for her 7-year-old son. The verdict?
“He immediately said laurel.”
But why? Perhaps because the frequencies contained within the two words, though different, are pretty close, said Marino, the Riddle audiologist. The consonants in the two words — r, l, and n — all have a frequency of about 500 hertz, she said.
With a muddy recording such as this one, a listener has to guess at what is being said. So part of the reason people hear one word or the other may lie in how their brain processes and interprets sound, she said.
Marino said her own experience, like that of the 7-year-old, defied the supposed trend — but in the opposite direction. She has a mild hearing loss in the higher-frequency range, yet heard yanny.
“I can’t hear laurel to save my life,” the audiologist said. “I can’t even make it sound like laurel in my head.”