This post is also available in Dutch.
Song lyrics are often misheard and can be a lot of fun. But these mishearings can actually tell us a lot about how our brains normally understand speech.
When I was a kid I could’ve sworn that Alanis Morissette was mourning the loss of a cross-eyed bear in “You Oughta Know” (instead of the original “cross I bear”). I’m not the only one. Lots of people misunderstand that line and many other famously misheard lyrics. In the Netherlands this is so common, there’s even a special term for English lyrics misheard as Dutch: “Mama Appelsap”1 (mom apple juice; technical term: soramimi). The name comes from a mishearing of a Michael Jackson song. But why do we mishear song lyrics and what can this tell us about how we understand speech?
Making sense of the nonsensical
Our brains have a way of trying to find sense even when there is none. This is what happens in the case of many visual illusions with ambiguous figures. According to a group of researchers who use soramimi to study misperceptions, this is exacerbated in songs because of distorted speech and noise. Unable to retrieve the intended meaning, our ears “slip” to the closest, usually more familiar, alternative. What’s more, misheard song lyrics are very persistent illusions: once you hear them, it’s very hard to un-hear them because of the strong influence of our expectations. But how is it possible to even get the language wrong?
In this video the subtitles help create the illusion that Coldplay’s Chris Martin is actually singing in Dutch (translation: “and this makes you angry”).
Here the Zulu in “The Circle of Life” (The Lion King) sounds like English.
Finding sense in another language
Today most researchers agree that a bilingual’s languages are stored and accessed together when listening to speech. Think of your phone’s predictive text function. If you don’t switch keyboards every time you switch languages, it will start to suggest, for example, Dutch words when you’re typing in English. This is our default. However, at some point during listening, words belonging to the actual language that you’re hearing are given preference. Soramimi show that sometimes this can actually be the wrong language.
Just like the predictive text function on a cell phone, our brains try to guess the words being said when we’re listening to someone talk.
This can happen when certain things bias us to expect the wrong language. One such thing is the context: like predictive text, if, in a conversation, all of the words up until a certain point are in one language, we’re likely to expect the next words to also be in that language. This can cause problems if the language suddenly changes, though.
Something else that can confuse us is if the speaker has an accent; the words suggest one language while the sounds point to another. We also might have a bias towards hearing our native language. Indeed, in my Master’s thesis I found that Dutch speakers were more likely to understand unexpected language switches (random Dutch among English or vice versa) when they were to native Dutch than when they were to English-accented Dutch. But how can speech from one language sound like speech in another?
Knowing where to draw the line
Unlike written language, words in speech are not separated by spaces: itsmorelikethis. Listeners make use of their knowledge of certain regularities of language to determine where one word ends and the other begins (e.g., that the ‘ts’ above is more likely to occur at the end of an English word than the beginning). The same happens during listening. However, these rules vary from language to language, so that a boundary that is unlikely in one language could be extremely likely in another (e.g., Japanese, where words like “tsunami” are frequent). A study on misheard lyrics found that many mishearings are in fact cases where conflicting language rules cause speech to be mis-segmented.
Misheard song lyrics are not such a mystery after all. They’re just examples of how the right conditions can trick our brains. But knowing this won’t change anything: you are still going to hear Chris Martin sing in Dutch or the Zulu in The Circle of Life as English… luckily.
1Misheard song lyrics are a type of speech misperception, or Mondegreen, a term coined by writer Sylvia Wright who, as a child, misheard a line from the Scottish song “The Bonny Earl O’Moray” as “They have slain the Earl O’Moray, and Lady Mondegreen” instead of the original “And laid him on the green.” In German misheard lyrics are referred to as Agathe Bauers after the misheard line from the song “I got the power.”
More Dutch-English Mama Appelsaps from the radio program Superradio met Timur & Rámon: