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Oct 14 2009

What did they say? Mondegreen and Soramimi

This morning I mentioned to someone that I thought we had a communication “breakdown”. We have conflicting ideas about the meanings of a few things. This brought to mind something much more innocuous than the discussion I was having.

Misheard Lyrics

I’m pretty sure that we can all remember song lyrics that we originally thought were something else entirely. It can be a bit embarrassing to suddenly realize that what you thought you heard all those times, and even sang along to, was not what the person actually sang.

Most of us experience this in a form that has come to be called a mondegreen. This is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song in a way such that what you think you hear makes some grammatical sense, yet has a different meaning than the original.

Take, for instance, the classic Jimi Hendrix song ‘Purple Haze’:

How many times have you heard this song and gotten to the point where Jimi sings “'Scuse me while I kiss the sky”, yet your mind hears “'Scuse me while I kiss this guy”? Apparently, being well aware of the misheard lyric, Jimi would sometimes sing “kiss this guy, just to keep people on their toes. The Archive of Misheard Lyrics has their site at the apt domain name kissthisguy.com as an homage to Jimi’s classic misheard lyric.

There are countless other examples of this type of misheard phrase, though I think it’s more prevalent in song lyrics than anywhere else.

Now that we know what kind of misheard phrase a mondegreen is, what is it about a soramimi that’s different? Soramimi (空耳) is a Japanese term which is often literally translated to English as ‘empty ear’. Soramimi differs from mondegreen in that it entails misunderstanding song lyrics in one language for different words in another language.

Any one of us with even a minimal exposure to languages other than our native tongue (English in my case) is certainly aware of specific words that have the same sound in two or more different languages, but different meanings. The misinterpretation of foreign words as words in their own language has been exploited by Japanese comedians for years. For example, the line “I want to hold your hand” in the Beatles’ song of the same name can be confused with Japanese words containing similar sounds. In Japanese, the phrase アホな放尿犯 (Aho na hōnyōhan) sounds very much like the line in the Beatles’ song. The meaning, however, is not nearly so similar. When translated into English, the Japanese phrase means Idiotic public urination [‘hōnyōhan’ is a legal term for the crime].

One YouTube user in particular has made his own English interpretations of non-english music videos, adding his interpretations as subtitles. Buffalax, or Mike Sutton, has turned the phenomena into several Internet memes. One of my favorites is the song ‘Moskau’, by German pop group Dschinghis Khan. The song was from their 1979 debut album, and I assume the video is from the same time period. Listening without reading the interpretation is not nearly as funny, but if you don’t speak German, you can still mishear some of the same lyrics.

[Copyright holders of some of the songs managed to get Mike’s YouTube account deleted. Many companies (including YouTube) need to learn about the term “fair use” and how it applies in the case of parodies. Below is a version of the song presented without Mike’s hilarious misinterpretations.]

There are many other similar interpretations of various songs, to and from many languages. Take a look around YouTube for ‘misheard lyrics’ and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of them. The next time someone says to you, “Hey, it sounded like they said…” you can tell them what it’s called, and maybe even point them to some funny videos.

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