LINGUIST List 11.2462

Mon Nov 13 2000

Sum: Phantom Phrases

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. karchung, Sum: Phantom phrases

Message 1: Sum: Phantom phrases

Date: Sun, 12 Nov 2000 16:30:40 +0800
From: karchung <>
Subject: Sum: Phantom phrases

	The kind of 'phantom phrase' I described in my 10/24/00 inquiry
( seems to be a 
variety of 'mondegreen'.

	The online American Heritage Dictionary defines _mondegreen_

	NOUN: A series of words that result from the mishearing or
misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric. For example, 'I
led the pigeons to the flag' for 'I pledge allegiance to the
	ETYMOLOGY: After (Lady) Mondegreen, a misinterpretation of the
line (hae laid) him on the green, from the song _The Bonny Earl
of Murray_. 

	Here's an addendum from:

	When author Siliva Wright was a child, she heard an old Scottish
ballad called "The Bonnie Earl of Murray," which includes the
line, "They hae slain the Earl o' Murray/And laid him on the
	Alas, Wright misunderstood that line as "They hae slain 
the Earl o' Murray/And Lady Mondegreen." As a result, she spent 
years pitying poor Lady Mondegreen before she finally saw the 
lyrics in print. Writing about this in a 1954 Harper's magazine 
article, Wright coined the term mondegreen to denote such words 

	Mondegreens are basically an aural version of pictures like 
the one where you can see the face of a pretty young woman or
that of
a wrinkled old one, depending on how you interpret the lines -
usually mondegreens are not consciously designed. 

	I discovered that there are quite a number of web pages on 
mondegreens. Here is one source of mondegreen links:

	Launching a search with the key word 'mondegreen' will direct
you to many other pages.

	There is also a variety of consciously composed 'mondegreens', a
genre highly popular in Web forwards. A few entries from one such

	protein		in favor of young people
	tumor		an extra pair
	dilate		to live long

	The mondegreen my students experienced was the cross-language
variety, i.e. the interpretation of the sounds of words in one
as though they were words in another language. 

	What I find especially interesting is the 'priming' effect 
I observed. The whole thing started with just one student and her
friend noticing the phenomenon rather idiosyncratically. When I
played for other people the portion of the tape where the two 
students 'heard' the phantom phrase, *nobody* I asked noticed 
anything special...until, that is, I explicitly mentioned the 
phrase that the original students noticed. Then there was 
*immediate* recognition (and often great hilarity) by most (but
not all) listeners. Sung lyrics are subject to various
due to the melody line, harmony, instrumental accompaniment, and 
various prosodic differences from speech, and these add to - or
conversely, may soften a bit - the inherent differences between
the two languages in question. I guess the priming phenomenon
shows there is considerable additional 'molding' of the input
signal by the brain according to a preexisting template, once the
template is somehow activated. Without the catalyst of an
external cue, however, the reaction does not easily or
necessarily take place, at least in the case I observed.

	This phenomenon of remolding data to a familiar existing 
pattern is exploited in spoofs such as the one quoted below,
is essentially the mondegreen formation process in reverse - you
start with a purposefully laid out reinterpretation and have to
derive the original. The format of the reinterpretation can be
so plausible that you don't easily get what's going on till
you're a 
good ways into the text. Your brain at some point realizes it
quite make sense out of the French, and suddenly a familiar
pops out: 

	Et qui rit des cure's d'Oc?
	De Meuse raines, houp! de cloques.
	De quelles loques ce turque coin.
	Et ne d'a^nes ni rennes,
	Ecuries de cure's d'Oc.	

	I'm still curious as to whether anyone has done anything further
with this phenomenon other than have a little fun with it. Though
I suppose 'having a little fun' is plenty worthwhile in itself!

	Many thanks to all who responded:

	Louise Baird 		<>
	David Branner 		<>
	Jouni Maho 		<>	
	Lance Nathan 		<>
	Meredith Patterson	<>
	James VandenBosch 	<>

							Karen Steffen Chung
							National Taiwan University

The responses:


From: Louise Baird <>

	The phenomenon you've asked about seems to me to be a very
one not only in hearing one language when it is 'really' another
one, but also within the same language. Especially when it comes
songs. For example in Sher and Sony's "I got you babe" I used to
still do, despite knowing better) hear the line "I got you babe"
as "I got
	Similarly there a part in another song (I don't know the name or
who it's by that goes: "I'm not talking about marriage, and I
don't want
to change your life, but there's a cold wind blowing *dum-dum
dum-dum* (?),
and I'd really love to see you tonight." I hear it as "I'm not
'bout Bolivia, and I don't want to change your life...." A
friend had
to prove that the correct version was "marriage" by producing a
written version
of the song for me. 
	While living in Indonesia I can recall times when I thought
someone was speaking English, when it was really a regional
language, but cannot recall exact examples. It seems the brain
is just trying
to make sense out of something it can't. 




From: Lance Nathan <tahnanMIT.EDU>

I'm not sure if it's quite what you mean; but I know no one who
heard the backup vocals in Peter Gabriel's "Games Without
properly without being told. Variously, English speakers hear
"she's so popular," "she's so funky, yeah," or even "she's in
front of me." The line is, in fact, "jeux sans frontiers,"
French for the title. This is a pretty well-known mishearing, I


Lance Nathan |


From: Jouni Maho <>

I saw your query on Linguist, and thought you might be interested
in looking at:

Not all "mishearings" make sense to the context in which they are
heard, but some do.

- -


From: "James VandenBosch" <>

Could you be referring to mondegreens or to malapropisms? I know
that what you've described involves the perception of a
first-language message within a second-language source, and there
may be a separate category for this phenomenon. If so, please
pass that information along.

James Vanden Bosch
Department of English
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, MI 49546 Tel.: (616) 957-6592 Fax: (616) 957-8508


From: "Patterson, Meredith" <>

> Does anybody else have experiences like this to report,
> anecdotal or otherwise? 

I had a similar experience with the theme song to the Japanese
animated TV series "Shoujo Kakumei Utena" (Revolutionary Girl
Utena). You can
download the song in MP3 format at; the title is
"Rinbu-Revolution" and means "Dance Wheel - Revolution". A full
set of lyrics are at (You'll
want to
scroll down to where it says "Full version".)

Anyway, at about 2:27 into the song, the lyrics "Genjitsu wa
Gamushara" appear; these are translated in the lyric sheet as
"Reality is
coming over and over" or "Reality is approaching now,
frantically." Like many
anime theme songs, this song incorporates a few English words,
before I read the lyric sheet, I was convinced that the lines
were "Gonna
change your mind, gonna shine" (and then more Japanese that I
understand). Once again, the misheard lyric would be thematically
appropriate; I'd
seen the song subtitled before while the show's opening credits
playing, so I knew what it was about, yet I parsed "Genjitsu wa
gamushara" as
English despite the fact that the words I'd misheard never
appeared in
the subtitles!

Hope this helps, or at least amuses.


From: David Branner <>

	The American Dialect Society discussion list had a lot of
postings about US placenames that are pronounced as recognizably
English words but are historically French or Spanish forms. Try

	Here's one conversation I recall (there are others):

 - dpb
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