On being ... a wonder

By Ingrid Sapona

For twenty years, I’ve made a living as a plain language communications specialist. My goal is to make information as clear and understandable as possible to all audiences. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways that people might misunderstand what’s written. Clients are often surprised at how straightforward word choice can create ambiguity. (A simple example I always give people is the word sheet. Not a particularly technical word, and yet, it can mean very different things. If you’re talking about sailing, a sheet is a rope. But what if you’re making a bed? Or what if you’re using a printer? Or what if you’re replacing a window? In each of those situations, sheet has a different meaning.)

Obviously, underpinning my work is a belief that with effort, you can make information understandable. Then, along came the news story recently about the internet meme[1] that got lots of buzz: the recorded pronunciation that some people heard as “yanni” and some heard as “laurel”.

I first heard about it in a morning news story on t.v. As part of that story, they repeatedly played the audio clip and I unequivocally heard “yanni”, “yanni”, “yanni”, though the word “laurel” was up on the screen. Given the mismatch between what I heard and what I saw, I was confused. I figured I must have only caught the tail end of the story.

The next time I heard it I was standing next to someone who was also hearing the audio clip. This time I heard “laurel”. I couldn’t believe it was the same clip. But, the person standing next to me said they heard “yanni”. While part of me found the whole thing unbelievable – given that I had heard it as “yanni” at one point and “laurel” at another point, I couldn’t deny that you could hear the same word very differently. Various on-line polls of what people heard show that the split was pretty much dead even (50/50).[2]

Shortly after the meme went viral, explanations about it came out. The difference apparently has to do with the frequencies we hear.[3] As for how I could have heard yanni one time and laurel another, it has to do with distortions in the frequency that could happen as a result of the audio clip being recorded and/or played via different devices. While I found the explanations interesting and believable, the fact that a word can be heard – and therefore interpreted – so differently is quite disconcerting to a “communications specialist”. Does the yanni/laurel discrepancy mean that no matter how much effort and care you put into making things clear, there is, at best, a 50/50 chance people will understand what you intend them to? Who knows…

A few days after the yanni/laurel story faded, I was out with my mother. Even with her hearing aids, her hearing isn’t terrific and she often complains that I speak too fast. As we were getting ready to leave someone’s office, she asked which direction to head. I told her to turn right. She headed out a bit ahead of me and when she got into the hall, she promptly turned left. When I caught up to her, as I pointed in the other direction, I reiterated that we need to head off to the right.

As she turned around, she adamantly said, “You said turn left”. I’m quite sure I had said, “go right” but, as I was about to object (ok, argue), I thought of the yanni/laurel phenomenon. Maybe she heard left, even though I said right. Who knows…

As you can see, the whole yanni/laurel thing has really given me pause. On the one hand, I’m going to try to keep it in mind as an explanation for when friends and family seem to have not “heard” what I said. On the other hand, it sure makes it seem that it’s a wonder that human beings are able to communicate with each other at all…

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona

[1] For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term “meme” (as I was until pretty recently), here’s one of the ways Merriam-Webster.com defines it:  an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media
[2] The Atlantic reported that one poll on Instagram showed 51% heard yanni and another Instagram poll showed 53% heard laurel, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/05/dont-rest-on-your-laurels/560483/
[3] Here’s a video that provides the best explanation I’ve found: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3km896XZ-J0


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