The Strange Phenomenon of the Soramimi

What the heck is a soramimi?

Soramimi (空耳 in kanji) is a Japanese word that literally translates to “air ear”, or “feigned deafness”. It’s a word used to describe the phenomenon of people mishearing song lyrics in a foreign language as words in their own language, often to humorous effect.  To start us off, here’s one of the most famous examples (Tamil misheard as English) from YouTube:

Another foreign language-to-English example (Finnish to English, to be exact) that was a favorite from my youth:

But speakers of languages other than English don’t get to miss out on the fun of soramimi. A few years ago, a video of Palestinian children singing a song called “Bladi” (“My Land” in English) went viral in Russia because when the Arabic song was interpreted into Russian, the lyrics morphed from a pleasant patriotic song to an ode to…ladies of ill repute. And bumblebees.

Japanese speakers, as you might imagine, have elevated the concept they named into an art form. The comedian Tamori included sketches in his TV show in which he and other actors literally interpreted foreign-language lyrics soramimi’d into Japanese. If your knowledge of Japanese doesn’t extend much further than konnichiwa and sushi, fear not, because you can see a subtitled example of Tamori’s Soramimi Hour here:

As you can see from the titles (and view counts) of these videos, soramimi lends itself very well to silly (if somewhat nonsensical) catchphrases. The phenomenon is very similar, you might notice, to something you’re already pretty familiar with: the mondegreen, or monolingual misheard lyrics. Famous examples of mondegreens include old favorites like “there’s a bathroom on the right” and “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy”, or more recent gems like  “concrete jungle, wet dream tomato” or “got a lot of Starbucks lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane”.

Why do we mishear lyrics or even less musical bits of speech (raise your hand if you wondered as a kid why you were pledging allegiance to a republic for witches’ hands)? Plenty of linguists have explored why we do it in our own languages (see this article from The New Yorker about the subject), and I’d hazard to say that the reasons for the phenomenon of soramimi are very similar, if not more salient. Mondegreens often happen when we encounter unfamiliar words and sounds, or familiar words and sounds sung in a hard-to-understand accent or style, and we parse out our own meaning from context (or lack thereof) and by drawing on words and sounds we already know. When we hear a song in a foreign language, especially one we do not speak, we are bombarded with sounds and words we do not know. Finding sound-alike words is a way to make some sense of something that doesn’t yet make sense to our ears and brains. In fact, soramimi helps facilitate what I discussed in the last post — the Mnemonic Keyword Method (MKM), in which language learners use sound-alikes from their L1 to remember vocabulary in L2. But whatever soramimi’s significance in linguistics is, I think we can all agree that it’s really funny that the Finnish word for “behind you” (takanasi) sounds like “taco Nazi”.

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