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Yanni or Laurel? Why Linguistic Priming Matters

This important effect in writing is likely something you’ve never heard of.

In the past weeks, news outlets picked up on one of those phenomena that only the Internet can generate. A sound sample, posted by a high school student in Georgia, became the source of a viral sensation when another user posted the sound sample to Instagram to create a poll, asking users what they heard. Some users heard either “Yanni” (or “Yanny"), while others distinctly heard “Laurel.”

The real source of the recording did little to resolve the debate: a 2007 recording of the word “Laurel,” a noisy recording that contains both high and low frequencies, yielding aural ambiguity. In contrast to relatively scarce examples of aurally ambiguous recordings, visually ambiguous figures are a familiar staple of how our senses can oscillate between one image and another—or frustrate us by revealing only one image where others see two, as in the Boring Figure.

Both forms of ambiguity—visual and aural—rely on priming, which involves prior exposure to a word or contextual cues that nudge us toward an interpretation of what we hear or see. Priming effects can prove so robust that they endure across nearly a dozen intervening counter-cues and may actually be a form of implicit learning.

However, the Yanni-Laurel split also depends on the sound frequencies audible to the listener, which depend on whether you hear the recording through headphones or speakers or the more flattened channel of a single smart speaker. In addition, listeners who heard “Yanni” have, as one pundit put it, “fresher ears”—hearing that has likely suffered less damage through aging and exposure to low noises than listeners who perceive the lower frequencies present in “Laurel.”

We actually encounter aural ambiguity far more frequently than most of us realize, as anyone who’s ever heard a friend badly bungling song lyrics while the friend sings blissfully along will recognize. In fact, we disambiguate speech on a daily basis, inserting pauses between a stream of words. Similarly, when we read, we disambiguate words that have multiple meanings, some unique to the role the word plays in the sentence as a part of speech. In English, in particular, we disambiguate more frequently than speakers in other languages, due to English having the largest vocabulary of any language on earth—and due to its perverse use of multiple words with the same meaning and multiple meanings for a single word.

Take, for example, the word sanction, which means both to approve of something and to register disapproval punitively. When you read, The organization decided to sanction gay marriage for all employees, the word all and the meaning of the surrounding sentences cue to you that the word here means approve. On the other hand, if you read, The Trump Administration opted to sanction any businesses actively trading with Iran, the unfolding news story and your awareness of its details inform you that the term means to express disapproval via punitive measures.

Priming has more robust effects than these in terms of organizing paragraphs and sentences and in ensuring what your readers recall, a concept I explored earlier in examining how your regular reading material influences the way you write, and which I'll explore further in a future post.