Yanny or Laurel – the death of the spoken word?

Geschichte / Deutschland / 19. Jh. / Wilhelm I.  / Deutsch-französischer Krieg 1870-71 / Emser Depesche

Bismark cleverly manipulated the words. He altered the Ems Telegram sent originally by Heinrich Abeken…

Yanny or Laurel – the death of the spoken word?

On 16 May 2018, the BBC television news finished with an unusual item. Perhaps, the producer was fed up with stories about the antics of Donald Trump, or the atrocities wrought on innocent populations by ISIS or the perennial BREXIT machinations by the British political elites. So Auntie or the Beeb, (or 2LO London calling, for older listeners) played a short sound clip and asked the viewers to identify it. The screen went white as the sound was played accompanied by a digital signature, a series of bars above and below a single line like some crazy bar-coded xylophone.

It caught my attention and I listened, ears back and alert for the sound. I heard the single word ‘Yearly.’

Yet to my surprise the announcer proceeded to say that some people would hear ‘Yanny’ while others would hear ‘Laurel’ and he proceeded to explain that people who heard Yanny had such and such a character while those hearing Laurel had a different character.

I lost interest for I had heard neither, I had heard, ‘Yearly.’ Yet as the news finished and the weather report appeared, I started to think about the significance of the single sound interpreted in at least three different ways. Like listening to a pop song but getting the words wrong. How many years ago did Jim Reeves sing that he loved a “big horse”? ‘I love you big horse…’ It took several takes before I understood that Jim was singing: ‘I love you because…’

The widely shared audio clip has divided the internet into two warring tribes – those who hear “Yanny” and those who hear “Laurel”.

The rival factions, the Yannies and the Laurels, let’s say, have been locked in a bitter battle for oral supremacy since at least Monday 16 May, when a Reddit user Roland Camry – the anonymous harbinger of an internet meltdown – posted the clip online.

Creiepeecraller said ‘I heard yanny for 10-15 minutes,’ then he asked someone else and they said, ‘Laurel,’ and after listening to it for some more time, he could sometimes hear a high pitched “Yanny” or a low pitched “Laurel”!

Here’s a typical comment: memesha@misha_devi tweeted: ‘right its weird i had my earphones in with nowt playing and played it through the speaker on my phone and heard laurel, but then i took the earphones out to hear better and i heard yanny…if that makes sense’

People were not sure of the word, yet the computer with its digital signature repeated the sound over and over again, exactly the same each time without inflexion or moderation.

Years before, words had emotion, bathos, passion and ambiguity. Today, digital signatures are cold, inflexible, precise, and comprehensible to any other computer in the world. Words have become numbers, just like people will soon be reduced to DNA genetic codes: tagcatgc… etc.

This is the way the world ends,’ predicts Auntie, ‘Not with a bang but with a “Laurel”, or a “Yanny”. No one can decide.’

Likewise, a Boy Scout game of whispers involves passing a message around a circle. Classically passing ‘Send reinforcements we are going to advance,’ becomes by the fourth or fifth iteration, ‘Send three and fourpence we are going to a dance.’

Since the dawn of time, man has used verbal messages, English evolved from Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and may other older languages. Yet that was the way of the world. Stories passed down by word of mouth, the oral tradition, lasted a long time. Only with the arrival of Persians and the art of writing could people be surer of what had been said.

Nations used to declare war formally. For hundreds of years, ambassadors scurried between kings and courts trying to avoid a war, sometimes to fail.

Imagine if an ambassador had said, ‘Yanny’, but the foreign diplomats heard, ‘Laurel’ and responded by declaring war!

This happened with the written Ems telegram in 1870. Bismark cleverly manipulated the words. He altered the Ems Telegram sent originally by Heinrich Abeken of the German Foreign Office acting under the instructions of King Wilhelm I, staying at the spa town of Ems. Abeken sent Bismarck a polite and diplomatic message, but Bismark keen to provoke the French published it after selective amendments had been made. It precipitated the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

See photo.

Since 1801, dictum meum pactum, my word is my bond, has been the rule in London Stock Exchange. Yet today, it is the computer with the exchange of 0s and 1s that is the bond that makes all contracts. They can’t have any problem like I say Yanny and you hear Laurel!

Is this the end for the spoken word? Already it is fraying at the edges with people asking computers, ‘Alexia, what time is it?’ or Google, ‘How do I bake a cake?’

Words will lose their subtleties of meaning as computers, which cannot to tell the difference between a word expressed in pain or joy or love or anger, take over. Computers can only handle simple translations, can only compute, add or subtract. Will an epigram become only a pointed saying as all sense of it being a short poem with a witty turn of phrase dies out. Will any poem with its manifold meanings ever be understood by a computer? How will the computer translate those English or foreign words with manifold meanings, even before the presence of slang variations?

Will the computer hearing the phrase, ‘I am busy doing nothing,’ know whether someone is working or idle or will it go into an interminable loop unable to decide which?

The new world order will, however, no longer struggle with hearing problems like Laurel or Yanny, but will we have become poorer in the process? At least, there will there never be another misunderstanding as in 1945 that led to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima. The bombing might have been avoided if a simple Japanese word had not been misunderstood. The misunderstanding came from a poor translation. When asked if Japan would surrender during World War II, the Japanese ruler used the word “mokusatsu” in response. Mokusatsu (黙殺) is a Japanese noun literally meaning “kill” with “silence”, and is used with a verb marker idiomatically to mean “ignore”, “take no notice of” or “treat with silent contempt”. It is composed of two kanji characters: (moku “silence”) and (satsu “killing”). Now what the Japanese word meant was “we withhold comment – pending discussion”, but when the response was sent to Washington the word was mistranslated to mean “We are treating your message with contempt”. This was picked up by the media and spread like a wildfire around the world. Undoubtedly frustrated by what he thought the response meant, and knowing he needed to respond sternly, President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb. Hundreds of thousands of people were either killed or injured.

Perhaps, computers should take over.


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