Listen to this recording. Before you go any further, just listen to it.
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
Late Monday night, this tweet was posted by a 20-year-old Instagram “influencer” named Cloe Feldman. It appears to be a screengrab of a poll that also appears on Feldman’s Instagram account (although the Instagram version was posted after the Twitter one, but the poll design is clearly Instagram-original, don’t ask me). On Feldman’s Instagram, yanny was in the lead as of press time with 51 percent of the vote. (If you can’t hear it, it sounds like yeah knee.) Another Instagram account, @KFCRadio, also added the poll to their Instagram story. As of press time, laurel was winning that one with 53 percent.
Having read this far, you may be outraged, and/or concerned about hearing loss. Because neither @CloeCouture nor @KFCRadio has responded to my request for comment yet (and neither has @Yanni), I can’t say anything about how or why the clip was made. But I do have a degree in linguistics, so I can hazard a guess about why this two-syllable recording is driving everyone bonkers.
When you speak, you’re producing sound waves that are shaped by the length and shape of your vocal tract, which includes your vocal folds (vocal cords is a misnomer), throat, mouth, and nose. Linguists can study these sound waves and separate them out into their component frequencies, and display them in something called a spectrogram. Here’s the spectrogram for the yanny/laurel recording:
Higher frequencies (up to 5,000 hertz, or waves per second) appear toward the top, and lower ones (down to zero) toward the bottom. The dark bands are called formants; they’re the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract, and they depend on the length and shape of your vocal tract—i.e., all the space between your vocal folds, where the sound waves begin, and your mouth and nose, where they’re released.