September 25, 2018
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What word do you hear in this? An expert explains the debate tearing up the internet.

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Updated:

In an internet debate reminiscent of 2015’s “ Is it gold or is it blue” dress photo, social media is being torn in half by a new dispute over whether a robotic voice recording is saying “Laurel” or “Yanny.”

The argument seems to trace back to either the curious musing of Florida social media starlet Cloe Feldman or a Reddit argument, but either way, people seem to come down squarely in either Team Laurel or Team Yanny.

Some people who hear the voice saying “Laurel” can’t fathom how anyone could hear “Yanny,” or vice versa.

Bestselling author and Bangor resident Stephen King first posted on Twitter that he thinks it’s Yanny, but then later said he was hearing Laurel. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, is Team Laurel.

It turns out, the voice is almost certainly only saying one of those two words (more on that later), but experts understand why it’s confusing for some people.

Drew Hooke, a Lincoln native who now works as an audio engineer in Massachusetts, said there are many factors at play in how people hear things, including whether they have suffered any hearing loss or the quality of the audio recording being heard.

“What I was hearing was both Laurel and Yanny. I was hearing Laurel as a fundamental and Yanny as an overtone,” Hooke told the BDN Wednesday. “So Laurel was louder and lower, and Yanny was higher and softer, more like a whisper.

“A complete sound can be many different sounds layered over each other,” he added. “I think why people are going to fight about [whether the voice says ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny’] is that both things are happening, and people are going to hear one over the other. To my ear, the thing I heard louder and more prominently, was ‘Laurel.’ … But if Yanny is a first- or second-order of harmonic, or overtone, it makes sense why a lot of people would hear that.”

He also said that people’s hearing sensitivities change naturally with age, as well.

“So younger listeners might be hearing higher frequencies as louder and more prominent, while older listeners may hear the same frequency as next to nothing, or as a whisper, like I did,” he said.

Britt Yazel — a researcher at the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain — told Popular Science he thinks that at the root of the audio is “Laurel.” And Buzzfeed reported that, yes, the audio recording going around is just a distorted version of the vocabulary.com pronunciation guide for the word “Laurel,” with those distortions creating the higher sounds many people are hearing as “Yanny.”

“I honestly think after looking at the spectrograms and playing with some filters that this is just the word ‘Laurel’ with some high frequency artifacts overlaying it,” he said.

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