Skip to main content

Understanding the spoken word in Martin case -- and our own lives

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri April 6, 2012
  • Sometimes we misinterpret words we hear
  • In analysis of George Zimmerman 911 call, listeners disagree
  • Our brains interpret sounds, make rapid predictions on what's to come
  • Misunderstandings often not willful, says expert; they "just happen"

(CNN) -- Sometimes we hear what we want to hear.

In "Annie Hall," Woody Allen's Alvy Singer is convinced that anti-Semitism lurks around every corner.

"I distinctly heard it," he tells Tony Roberts' character, and then digresses into a story about hearing a companion say "Jew eat?" -- instead of "Did you eat?"

"You see conspiracies in everything," responds Roberts.

In the Trayvon Martin case, the spoken word has become part of the controversy about what really happened. And despite the fact that we live in an era when computers can break down syllables with split-second ease, interpreting the spoken word can remain challenging: noise, audio quality, even dialect can play a role, says Brian Joseph, a linguistics professor at The Ohio State University.

Moreover, much of our interpretation of language relies on context, he adds.

Zimmerman attorneys say media unfair
Crump: Trayvon had right to defend self
Swain: 'Hoodies feed into stereotype'
Nugent: Trayvon case a tragedy

"A lot of what we do in understanding speech is we make predictions. These are all unconscious and very rapidly done," he says. "But we make predictions about what we are going to be hearing based on what we have already heard, and the context in which we are listening."

Analyzing audio

With the Martin case, the debate has turned on what George Zimmerman said when he was on the phone with 911 operators in the moments before he shot Martin. Zimmerman told his lawyers that he whispered "punks," not a racial slur, his attorneys told CNN on Thursday.

Some commentators have said they hear a racial slur, and others say there is no way of knowing. Jon Stewart mocked the coverage on "The Daily Show."

Forensic audio expert Tom Owen, who analyzed the 911 recordings, stated the garbled word that raised controversy was "punks," not the racial slur some people said they heard.

When Owen, chairman emeritus of the American Board of Recorded Evidence, used a computer application to remove cell phone interference, the word became clearer, he said. After discussions with linguists, he said he became convinced that Zimmerman said "punks."

He provided CNN with a copy of the newly processed audio.

CNN also enhanced the sound of the 911 call, and several members of CNN's editorial staff repeatedly reviewed the tape but could reach no consensus on whether Zimmerman used a slur.

The 'mom' bomb

Misunderstood speech can lead to problems in other fields. The military has a phonetic alphabet so instructions aren't confused: M and N, two letters easily misconstrued, become "Mike" and "November." Pilots strive for clarity in their communications with air-traffic controllers and crew -- after all, safety is at stake.

Even casual chatter can be misinterpreted. In one recent case, a pilot welcomed the mother of an air-traffic controller on his flight -- except some passengers believed he'd said there was a "bomb on board," and not a "mom on board." Two passengers complained to officials.

"A lot of these misunderstandings are not a matter of willful misunderstanding. They kind of just happen," says Joseph.

In music and poetry, these misinterpretations have come to be known as mondegreens. " Excuse me while I kiss this guy," some people think they hear in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." "You and me and Leslie, groovin'," the Young Rascals did not sing in "Groovin'." "Wrapped up like a douche, another runner in the night," went (allegedly) Manfred Mann's Earth Band's version of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light."

(The actual lyrics are, of course, " Excuse me while I kiss the sky," "You and me endlessly, groovin' " and "Revved up like a deuce.")

When the "Paul McCartney Is Dead" rumor went around in 1969, Beatles fans ran their phonographs into the ground by playing their LPs backwards and at awkward speeds. Did John say "I buried Paul" at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever"? Did the group say "We'll f*** you like supermen" at the end of the "Sgt. Pepper" run-out groove? And what of the White Album's "Revolution 9"? More than 40 years later, whole websites are still devoted to figuring it out.

Forging connections

For all the problems they cause, our understandings of speech are actually beneficial, points out Joseph, the Ohio State linguistics professor.

"The ability to predict makes it easy for us to understand rapidly -- within milliseconds you are understanding what I'm saying," he says. "Part of that is because you can project ahead and you can draw on your experience in having listened to people talk for however many years."

In the Martin case, the word may make a difference. Some observers are calling for Zimmerman to be charged with a hate crime, and his speech could be used as evidence.

But then again, words and speech always make a difference. They help illustrate the way we think, Joseph says.

"The kinds of semantic associations people make that lead to speech errors give you an idea of the kinds of connections that people forge," he says.

He adds that speech can also make you re-think.

"When you hear something that goes counter to your expectations, either you have to go back and say, 'What did I just hear?' " he says. "Or else you recalibrate and say, 'We're moving in a different direction.' "

Part of complete coverage on
George Zimmerman
updated 8:50 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
Let's get ready to ... mumble.
updated 8:35 PM EST, Fri January 24, 2014
George Zimmerman, who sold his first painting on eBay for a whopping $100,000, is at it again.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Sun September 29, 2013
George Zimmerman's estranged wife said that while she respects the jury's not guilty verdict in his second-degree murder trial, she now has doubts about his innocence.
updated 1:11 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
George Zimmerman's defense team says people should delve into the "substance" of other comments made by a juror who claimed the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
A juror in the George Zimmerman trial says she feels the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 3:52 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Four days after he was acquitted of murder, George Zimmerman stepped out of seclusion to help a family.
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
Florida law kept George Zimmerman from being held accountable in last year's shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, the teen's mom said.
updated 10:10 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Vowing to keep fighting for his son Trayvon -- even after Zimmerman was acquitted of murder -- Tracy Martin said that his family wants to turn "negative energy" surrounding their plight "into a positive."
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Sat July 20, 2013
The nation has a long history of self-defense laws. Almost every state allows some version of the "castle" defense, as in "a man's home is his castle."
updated 12:43 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
The woman known as Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial released a statement exclusively to CNN pushing for new laws.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
One of the jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman said she had "no doubt" he feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin.
updated 8:54 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
George Zimmerman "didn't do anything unlawful" and was "justified" in shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, according to one of the jurors who acquitted Zimmerman.
updated 1:04 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
The friend who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin when his fatal confrontation with Zimmerman said she is upset at his acquittal on murder charges.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
His trial's over. And now it turns out that George Zimmerman might need the same thing millions of Americans are looking for: a job.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
An employee of the Florida State Attorney's Office who testified that prosecutors withheld evidence from George Zimmerman's defense team has been fired.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
This might sound like a legal conundrum.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Suspected racism in the justice system, deep-seated, secretive and historic, was the crux of the case for millions, writes Tom Foreman.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
Just like most any other teenager, Trayvon Martin enjoyed listening to music and going to the movies, friends and family said.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
With a single phrase, Rachel Jeantel, that friend of Trayvon Martin's, may have lit a fuse in the trial of his accused killer.