I am sure that all of us have misheard the lyrics of songs. My own favorite is the beginning of the Beach Boys song Help me Rhonda where I thought it sounded like they sang, “Well, since you put me down, there’ve been owls sleeping in my bed”. Of course, this was preposterous but that’s what it sounded like. (In my defense, the actual words are supposed to be “Well, since she put me down I ‘ve been out doin’ in my head” which does not make much more sense. For the longest time I also thought they were appealing to Wanda.) Each of us can give many examples of getting phrases or song words wrong.
Maria Konnikova informs me that this phenomenon where what you think makes sense but is entirely incorrect actually has a name and is called the ‘mondegreen effect’.
In November, 1954, Sylvia Wright, an American writer, published a piece in Harper’s where she admitted to a gross childhood mishearing. When she was young, her mother would read to her from the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” a 1765 book of popular poems and ballads. Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.” Except they hadn’t. They left the poor Earl and “laid him on the green.” He was, alas, all by himself.
So what is going on here? Why is it so easy to mishear the spoken word?
Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance.
Human speech occurs without breaks: when one word ends and another begins, we don’t actually pause to signal the transition. When you listen to a recording of a language that you don’t speak, you hear a continuous stream of sounds that is more a warbling than a string of discernable words. We only learn when one word stops and the next one starts over time, by virtue of certain verbal cues—for instance, different languages have different general principles of inflection (the rise and fall of a voice within a word or a sentence) and syllabification (the stress patterns of syllables)—combined with actual semantic knowledge.
A common cause of mondegreens, in particular, is the oronym: word strings in which the sounds can be logically divided multiple ways. One version that Pinker describes goes like this: Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise. The string of phonetic sounds can be plausibly broken up in multiple ways—and if you’re not familiar with the requisite proper noun, you may find yourself making an error. In similar fashion, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes Bohemian Rap City. Children might wonder why Olive, the other reindeer, was so mean to Rudolph. And a foreigner might become confused as to why, in this country, we entrust weather reports to meaty urologists or why so many people are black-toast intolerant. Oronyms result in not so much a mangling as an incorrect parsing of sounds when context or prior knowledge is lacking.
What usually prevents us from being tripped up by phonetics is the context and our own knowledge. When we hear a word or phrase, our brain’s first cue is the actual sounds, in the order in which they are produced. According to the cohort model—one of the leading theories of auditory word processing—when we hear sounds, a number of related words are activated all at once in our heads, words that either sound the same or have component parts that are the same. Our brain then chooses the one that makes the most sense.
The problem becomes more acute when we cannot see the person speaking and so are entirely dependent on verbal cues.
Konnikova says that given the complexity of all the factors that play a role in enabling us to make sense of what we hear, and the many ways in which we can be misled, it is surprising that we are not wrong more often.
Mondegreens are funny, of course, but they also give us insight into the underlying nature of linguistic processing and how our minds make meaning out of sound. In fractions of seconds, we translate a boundless blur of sound into sense. It comes naturally, easily, effortlessly. We sift through sounds, activate and reject countless alternatives, and select one single meaning out of myriad homonyms, near-matches, and possible parsings—even though speakers may have different accents, pronunciations, intonations, or inflections. And, in the overwhelming majority of instances, we get it right.
Stand up comedian Peter Kay has created a whole routine out of misheard song lyrics. Note how he takes advantage of the fact that how his lips move strongly influences what we think we hear. And once we have formed our own impression of what the words are, each rehearing seems to cement that error more strongly in our brains.