Mondegreen Involution as Psychological Warfare
Maj. J. Hendrix and Lt. Theskye Thissguy
The Publius Quinctilius Varus School of Applied Combat Linguistics
While mishearing the words in poetry, song lyrics, and whispered comments of one’s academic colleagues can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, all are common enough occurrences in everyday life. Such confusions of near homophones are named after the eponymous Lady Mondegreen, bittersweet companion in death to the bonnie Earl o’ Moray.
While mondegreens can be embarrassing, the damage done rarely rises beyond the level of ruining karaoke night. We seek to employ the novel technique of mondegreen involution—in which indiscernible differences in pronunciation are deliberately misheard as distinct—as a form of psychological warfare.
Experiment I—Breadth of Effect
In our first experiment, we placed four volunteers in an experimental setting with the nominal goal of understanding regional differences in pronunciation, in a discussion led by an experimenter. In truth, all but one of the volunteers were confederates of the experimenter.*
In the first part of the experiment, words that are commonly pronounced differently in the US and UK were elicited from the volunteers, with some provided by the experimenter. In particular the confederates made a point to note that some differences were much more subtle than others, e.g., alumin(i)um vs. ballet.
In the second part of the experiment, one of the confederates latched on to a difference, such as /təmeɪtoʊ/–/təmɑːtəʊ/, and proffered a “third pronunciation”—supposedly common in their home dialect—which is in fact the same as the US standard /təmeɪtoʊ/ pronunciation. The other confederates pretended to find it easy, straightforward, or difficult to hear the difference, but all eventually were able. Similarly, the confederates appeared to find it easy, straightforward, or difficult to produce the different sounds. The experimental subject was encouraged to participate.
In reality, the confederates are consistently pronouncing /təmeɪtoʊ/ as they usually would in all cases, with no intentional variation. On the perception side, the confederate who is the alleged native speaker of the third pronunciation provided judgements on the other volunteers’ perceptions. When the other confederates guessed, they were usually correct. When the experimental subject guessed, they were almost always wrong. In particular, their guesses were wrong significantly more often than chance. On the production side, the other confederates “got better” as they practiced, while the experimental subject was essentially never correct. If the experimental subject produced two clearly different pronunciations, the others commented along the lines of, “Those are certainly different, but that’s not the right pronunciation.”
In 82.4% of cases (n = 697), experimental subjects experienced a decrement of 3.4 points (“running over a sprinkler head with the lawnmower”) on the 10-point Eirôn–Alazṓn emotional scale, with a mean post-experiment score of 4.3 (“moderately peeved”). The range of decrements among experimental subjects was 0.4 (“stubbing a toe”) to 5.2 (“being stripped of Tour de France medals”). The range of pre-experimental scores was 8.2 (“annoyingly chipper”) to 3.4 (“unironic goth”); for post-experiment scores the range was 7.8 (“bright-eyed; tail bushiness indeterminate”) to 2.2 (“formerly ironic teen goth no longer sure of irony status”).
In light of our level of success with a single session of mondegreen involution, we decided to up the ante. We stratified our subjects along two dimensions: (i) final Eirôn–Alazṓn state at the beginning of Experiment I and (ii) Eirôn–Alazṓn decrement as the result of Experiment I. Our rough buckets along these dimensions we labeled (i) the pollyannas, the realists, and the miserable sods; and (ii) the tough cookies, the insufficiently resolute, and the pushovers. From each of the nine cells of the feature matrix we selected five subjects at random and arranged for our confederates to be “enrolled” in classes with them in a subsequent semester. Thus began Experiment II.
Experiment II—Depths of Despair
For this phase of the experiment, the confederates—now enrolled in classes with the unwitting experimental subjects†—arranged to spend in-class time near the experimental subjects,§ further exposing them to the mondegreen involution stimuli.
For months, the original “native speaker” confederate trotted out more examples of alleged alternate pronunciations—chosen more or less at random from among any words being used regularly in each class. Non-experimental classmates often participated in the discussion of particular pronunciations, and the “native speaker” confederate would rate their perception and production similarly to those of the other confederates—increasingly correct over time‖—while the experimental subjects were still almost never judged as being correct.
For the vast majority of our experimental subjects—97.8% (n = 45)—the experience of continued mondegreen involution was devastating. Several dropped the classes they were enrolled in with the experimental confederates, and many had uncontrolled emotional outbursts—including two who were eventually expelled from PQV.
For one of the miserable pushovers the experience was unequivocally “too much”; the subject achieved a previously unknown low on the Eirôn–Alazṓn emotional scale: -2.4. Negative Eirôn–Alazṓn values had been hypothesized, but never observed.◊ We considered stopping the experiment out of ethical concerns—after all destroying a person’s will to live can be emotionally draining—but our experimental confederates were real tough cookie troupers!
For reasons we did not originally understand, one of the pollyanna tough cookies was more or less immune to the mondegreen involution. However, the reasons became clear during the post-experimental debrief.
For the most eloquent among the non-catatonic experimental survivors,❦ their devastation is best described as a sort of loss of faith in their native speaker competence. It eventually rippled into other aspects of their lives, resulting in social withdrawal and isolation, increased emotional sensitivity, decreased physical stamina, decreased psychological resilience, and general wussification.⁂
For our apparently impervious experimental subject, however, failure meant little—in large part because she does not consider herself a native speaker of American English! Though her spoken accent seems flawless, she considers herself a native speaker of British English; her American parents moved her to the US after an early childhood in London. After her initial failure to perceive the (non-existent) /təmeɪtoʊ/–/təmeɪtoʊ/ distinction, she just chalked it up to one of the few remaining defects in her ongoing Americanization. Her general optimism (pollyanna) and high resiliency (tough cookie) were enough to deflect our off-target attack. It pays to know your enemy!
Conclusion—Heights of Optimism
Mondegreen involution has proven an effective form of psychological warfare in our experiments. A single session is enough to induce significant though temporary Eirôn–Alazṓn decrementation, and prolonged and repeated exposures can have devastating psychological effects. Gathering basic intelligence is a worthwhile investment to improve prospects for affecting high-value targets. Risks of deployment are generally low, though they include potential detection by sophisticated linguistic defense initiatives. However, the confidence-destroying and shame-inducing nature of the attack makes it unlikely that victims will admit they have a problem and seek assistance, much less the complex spectrographic investigation necessary to uncover an operative’s deception. Elite special linguistic forces operatives should be trained in detection countermeasures, such as mastering the production of slight variations in voice-onset time, partial nasal release, minimal palatalization, or other non-distinctive variations in the native language of the target.
Quintili Vare, legiones redde!
* Thanks to our willing and able graduate students—Soramimi Mumpsimus, Hobson Jobson, and Good Mrs. Murphy—who each played the rôle of confederate in our experiments with great gusto and panache.
† Thanks to the PQV School’s Board of Generals having eliminated the school’s Human Subjects Review Board in 1983—a long and difficult four months after it was established—no permission was necessary to continue the experiment. Good generals know that sometimes you have to sacrifice pawns‡ to achieve important objectives.
‡ Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that we probably meant “foot soldiers” here. Yeah, probably.
§ Thanks to Prof. Maj. Gen. Louie L. Kingsmen, Prof. Lt. Gen. Mairzy Doats, and Prof. Col. N. A. Gottadavida for collaborating with us and instituting assigned seating for various classes in their departments in order to facilitate our experiments.
‖ Thanks to our data scientist collaborator, Sgt. Sylvester Falettinme, for pointing out that analyzing data on the participating non-experimental classmates could potentially lead to methods for detecting persons who are easily persuaded and manipulated into believing that they recognize and understand something that does not exist. Such patsies¶ could be quite useful in many circumstances.
¶ Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that we probably meant “assets” here. Quite likely.
◊ Thanks to Prof. Archaia Eirôn for providing us with a tentative experiential correlate for the -2.4 value: “dying young and unloved, being undeservedly condemned to the lowest circle of Hell as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, being reincarnated after an infinite number of eons, dying during childbirth, being condemned to a significantly worse underworld for having ‘squandered’ that reincarnation cycle, being unwillingly enlightened so as to fully and completely understand the concept of infinity, recognizing the first stint in Hell as being ℵ0 eons long, coming to grips with the implications of the next phase of punishment being ℵω eons, and—moments before beginning that next phase—stubbing a toe”.
❦ Thanks to a grant from our sister institution, The Nurse Ratched Home for Wantonly Wayward Girls, several of the experimental survivors are fairly likely to receive some of the care they will need to become semi-functional members of society again. The rest have been rehomed at the Soylent Corporation’s “Long-Term” Care Center.
⁂ Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out that we probably meant “lily-livered namby-pamby momma’s-boy yellow-bellied crybaby milksop pantywaist pansification” here. Doubtless.