Earlier in the month I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across this post. At first I was baffled. Whenever I looked at the left side I heard “bar,” but when I looked at the right side I heard “far.” We had just covered language in class so I was determined to figure out why my brain was playing tricks on me.
At first I thought that this video utilized categorical perception’ that is, hearing sounds as the same as long as they’re within the same category. After further research, I realized that we are not being fooled by the sound of the word itself but by the mouth movement while we listen. If you’re interested in reading more about categorical perception, this article explains it very well with examples.
Since this theory did not make sense, I tried to dig deeper. What could be going on that would cause my brain to struggle with this? I remembered our discussion on phonology from class. We had been told that there are multiple different ways that the production of phonemes can impact the sounds we say. These include voicing, manner of production, and place of articulation.
Voicing refers to whether the vocal cords vibrate. You can examine this first hand by placing your hand on your throat and making the “z” sound, then the “s” sound. Your vocal cords vibrate when making the “z” sound, but not the “s” sound. Aside from this, the letters are extremely similar in the way we say their sounds. The reason that this video cannot utilize this technique to confuse us is because you can’t see a different in mouth shape between “z” and “s.” It would look the same to us on the screen.
Manner of production looks at whether the air is fully stopped or only restricted. Take “b” and “z” for example. When you make the “b” sound, air is fully stopped for a split second. However, when you make the “z” sound, the air is simply restricted. In the facebook video I found, “bar” and “far” differ in this way. While “bar” starts with a full stop, “far” starts with restricted air. If you closely watch the video again, you’ll notice that on the left side the man fully stops the air. This is why we hear “bar when we look at the left side. On the other hand, when we examine the right side we hear “far” because the sound is restricted but not stopped.
You probably also noticed that you can see the man’s teeth in the right video. This has to do with the last variation in production of phonemes, which is place of articulation. This term helps us understand where in the mouth the air is restricted. For the “b” in “bar,” the lips are closed. However, for the “f” in “far,” the top teeth are against the bottom lip. Rather than the air stopping behind the lips, it is restricted at the teeth.
So how does this trick work? Your brain knows how to produce the sounds you want to say. After all, Dr. Rettinger told us in class that as we listen to speech, your brain reproduces the movements you’d do to make the sound. In this way we know that our mouths makes different movements for the words “bar” and “far.” When we look at the left side our brains see the closed lips and know that this is how we make the “b” sound. When we look at the right, our brains see the teeth and restricted air and know that we make these motions to make the “f” sound. All of this is subconscious now, but if you watch small children who are learning to speak you will see them studying your face. When children say “aminals” and we say “no, animals,” they struggle to fix their mistakes. The slight adjustment to manner of production is hard for them in the beginning. If you are interested in learning more about how children learn to speak, you can read more about it here.
So what it the video actually saying? If you’re anything like me, this is driving you crazy. I wanted to know if the man was actually saying “far” or “bar.” In order to minimize the priming effects of the video you should walk away from it and do something else for a while. When you come back to it, close your eyes. Do not watch the video. Instead, just listen to the voice. When I did this I only heard “bar.” I think that I could hear the puff of air that came from the mouth opening after the closed “b” sound. Try it for yourself and let me know which one you think he is actually saying!
If you’re interested in learning more about how speech is produced, you can read a very thorough (but also very dense) article here.