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Home > Medical Services > Ear, Nose & Throat > Ear Care > Yanny or Laurel
When a Georgia teenager looked up one of her vocabulary words in an online dictionary, little did she know she would spark a viral debate on the Internet in May 2018.
The dictionary’s audio pronounced the word, “laurel,” but her ears heard “yanny.” Wondering what others heard, she recorded the pronunciation, posted it to social media and the rest is viral internet history with people all over the world hearing “yanny,” “laurel,” or, in some cases, both words.
Katie SoltysAuD, CCC-A, F-AAA
Why do listeners hear two different sounds from one word?
Mercy Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic audiologist Dr. Katie Soltys says the answer resides in three areas: the device playing the audio, the listener’s sensitivity to frequencies, and how the brain processes speech.
“Some devices will pick up more high or low frequency information depending on the sensitivity of the speaker outputs,” says Dr. Soltys. “If the device places more emphasis on high pitch information, you will likely hear ‘yanny’ and if the device incorporates lower pitch information you may hear ‘laurel.’”
“Speech sounds occur at different intensities, tones and frequencies,” she says. “How sensitive your hearing is across the frequency range may affect how you perceive words. If you have very normal hearing across all frequencies that are used to perceive speech sounds, you may pick up on the word ‘yanny’ versus someone with poorer hearing acuity for high pitch sounds may only hear ‘laurel.’”
“Your brain will fill in what it thinks the sound should be,” explains Dr. Soltys. “It’s a phenomena that is especially helpful when background noise is present, called the binaural squelch effect, helping to tune out noise and focus in on speech information. If your brain isn’t quite sure what the word is, you will perceive the word your brain might expect you to hear or because it’s a word that you have heard before.”
“If you hear both,” she says, “you’re in luck because you probably have very good hearing! If you are only hearing ‘yanny’ or ‘laurel’ and incorporate changes to the pitch of the sound clip, you would likely hear the other word, depending on how you adjust the pitch. More emphasis on the boomy, lower tones will highlight the word ‘laurel’ versus increasing the treble, which will accent the word ‘yanny.’”
Wonder how your ears process this sound? Explore the yanny/laurel frequency manipulator from The New York Times.