Almost every song lyric can be misunderstood: famously, Jimi Hendrix’s Kiss the Sky is often heard as Kiss This Guy. Why does this happen? The answer lies in understanding the phenomenon of ‘mondegreens’. ‘Slips of the ear’ of this sort occur in everyday spoken conversation on a regular basis, even in Dutch. The party game Chinese Whispers plays on our tendency to transform the intended speech wave into a different perceptual experience, and can be seen as the instantaneous mutations that lead to large-scale language change. While slips of the tongue are well-known from Freud’s analysis of speaker’s ‘accidental’ revelations, slips of the ear have received far less attention. We’ve developed a database of 4000 naturally collected English examples where the hearer is the source of miscommunication — whether in the noisy pub, over the mobile phone, or in the clash of dialects heard when an Australian visiting Arizona asks ‘Where’s a basin?’, and a local replies ‘Bison? They’re rare around here these days’. Looking into recurrent slips reveals that our expectations can indeed bias what we mis-hear, but within limits: the intended utterance and the misheard message must be just phonetically close enough to allow our ears to deceive us, such that speaker-dependent bottom-up perceptual ambiguity proposes, and listener-dependent top-down processing disposes.
This video should be seen along with the presentation: Andrew Nevins 8 october 2015.
Andrew Nevins is Professor of Linguistics at University College London. He conducts research in the language sciences on phonological and morphological theory, focusing on Basque dialects, Brazil’s indigenous languages, whistled languages, and misheard song lyrics. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT, and was an associate professor at Harvard University and a Fulbright Scholar in Rio de Janeiro prior to joining UCL. Nevins has authored two books on phonology and morphology: Locality in Vowel Harmony (MIT Press) and Morphotactics, coauthored with Karlos Arregi (Springer). His laboratory’s goal is to develop new ways to improve the empirical foundations of linguistic theory. He currently holds a grant from the Leverhulme Trust in the United Kingdom.