Here, via All Things Linguistic, is a fun and fascinating video in which University College London professor Andrew Nevins explains the science of mondegreens. That’s the fancy word for misheard or misapprehended song lyrics (the title of this post comes from a common one, from Creedence):
Nevins says these “slips of the ear” are usually due to a convergence between “bottom-up factors and top-down factors.”
Bottom-up factors are … the fact that certain sounds like shh [or] fff are more susceptible to noise … and so certain consonants and vowels may inherently be more fragile, less robust in the acoustic signal. Whereas top-down refers to our expectations. What are we expecting to hear? What do we want to hear? In that context, what is more likely?
Mondegreens occur when both of those factors are present — both the acoustic fragility that provides the space for ambiguous interpretation and the expectation or desire that makes the alternative interpretation preferable.
Nevins does a terrific job explaining both factors. His parenthetical video on “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” analyzes the technical, phonetic reasons that it’s so easy to misunderstand Jimi Hendrix in “Purple Haze.” And it’s not because Hendrix was mumbling. In English, Nevin explains, “the sound ‘k’ after an ‘s,’ has a different pronunciation.” The k in “sky” isn’t pronounced the same way as the k in Kevin or kite. Pronouncing it that way would turn “sky” into a two-syllable word. Thus, “If you phonetically clip off the ‘s’ in ‘sky,’ you’ll hear something that sounds more like ‘guy.'”
The mondegreen comes, Nevins says, from a misplaced word boundary, which transforms “the sky” into “thes ky,” which we hear as “this guy.” But he also notes that “kissing the sky is a fairly abstract concept … the sky is never really kissable.” All of the lyrics to the song are similarly abstract — unexpected and unexpectable in a way that disarms our ability to predict from the context what Hendrix is most likely to be singing next.
Nevins again discusses both of those factors in a short video about the first mondegreen he recalls encountering. As a child, he says, he was certain that Daryl Hall was singing “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.” That misapprehension, he says, was due to his being a 6-year-old who could not expect, or understand, the abstract, romantic intended meaning of “take a piece of me with you.” But rather than such abstraction leading to a question — “Mommy, what does he mean by ‘you take a piece of me with you’?” — it led Nevins to a (mistaken) conclusion.
Instead of accurately hearing something he wasn’t capable of understanding, he transformed what he heard into something that he could explain. (“Long journey, not sure where the food sources are, why not pack along some victuals?”)
But again, Nevins says, “This was only made possible by the fact that ‘piece of me’ and ‘piece of meat’ are phonetically ambiguous. … ‘T’ at the ends of words, in many varieties of English, is glottalized to the point of not even being released.”
So I’m sitting here in Chester County, watching this video of a man in his London office as he explains the technical mechanics of Hall’s
Chester County Pottstown accent. Cool.
But it’s Nevins’ next statement that prompted this post:
What I would say is going on here is that the phonetic ambiguity of “piece of me” in that context proposes, and then the listener’s biases and top-down preferences in that context disposes, chooses one or the other.
Ambiguity proposes, preference disposes. We’re forced to choose, and so we do.
And that, dear friends, is why we’ll probably never settle arguments over biblical interpretation until Jesus comes back to show us the lyrics in the liner notes.
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Update: Corrected to reflect that Daryl Hall does not spell his name properly, the way my good friend Darryl does, and that Pottstown is actually in Montgomery County — which seems impossible, since its directly north of where I’m sitting, just off of Pottstown Pike, and everybody knows that Montgomery County is east of here. I blame my geographic confusion on living in the ridiculously Gerrymandered 6th District, the perpetual kingdom of Gerlachia, the boundaries of which are based on some kind of non-Euclidean geometry. Mr. Hall now lives in Dutchess County, N.Y. — or, at least, that’s where he records Live From Daryl’s House, which, if you haven’t seen it, is pretty delicious. Here’s a taste: “Cruel to Be Kind” with Nick Lowe and the late, great T-Bone Wolk.