Gay male speech

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Particularly within North American English, gay male speech has been the focus of numerous modern stereotypes, as well as sociolinguistic studies. Scientific research has uncovered phonetically significant features produced by many gay men and demonstrated that listeners accurately guess speakers' sexual orientation at rates greater than chance.[1] Historically, gay male speech characteristics have been highly stigmatized and their usage may be sometimes coded to a limited number of settings outside of the workplace or other public spaces.

One particularly relevant feature is sometimes known as the gay lisp, though researchers confirm that it is not technically a lisp. Research does not support the notion that gay speech entirely adopts feminine speech characteristics – rather, that it selectively adopts some of those features.[2] Gay speech characteristics appear to be learned (rather than innate) ways of speaking, like many aspects of language, though their origins and process of adoption by men remain unclear.[3]

There are similarities between gay male speech and the speech of other members within the LGBTQ+ community. Features of lesbian speech have also been confirmed in the 21st century, those they are far less socially noticed than features of gay male speech. Drag queen speech is a further topic of research and, while some drag queens may also identify as gay men, a description of their speech styles may not be so binary.[4] Like with other marginalized communities, speech codes can be deeply tied to local, intimate communities to not deny the widespread influence of media depicting gay and trans personas in the vein of RuPaul's Drag Race.[5]

North American English[edit]

Linguists have attempted to isolate exactly what makes gay men's English distinct from that of other demographics since the early 20th century, typically by contrasting it with straight male speech or comparing it to female speech.[6] In older work, speech pathologists often focused on high pitch among men, in its resemblance to women, as a defect.[7] Since the gay community consists of many smaller subcultures, it is unlikely that all gay male speech falls under a single homogeneous category.[8]

Gay "lisp"[edit]

What is sometimes colloquially described as a gay "lisp"[9] is one manner of speech associated with gay speakers of North American English, and perhaps other dialects or languages.[10] It involves a marked pronunciation of sibilant consonants (particularly /s/ and /z/).[11][12] Speech scientist Benjamin Munson and his colleagues have argued that this is not a mis-articulated /s/ (and therefore, not technically a lisp) as much as a hyper-articulated /s/.[13] Specifically, gay men are documented as pronouncing /s/ with higher-frequency spectral peaks, an extremely negatively skewed spectrum, and a longer duration than heterosexual men.[14][15][16] However, not all gay American men speak with this hyper-articulated /s/[17] (perhaps fewer than half),[18] and some men who identify as heterosexual also produce this feature.[17]


A 2006 study of gay men in the Upper Midwestern American dialect region found that they tend to lower the TRAP vowel (except before a nasal consonant) as well as the DRESS vowel.[19] This linguistic phenomenon is normally associated with the California vowel shift and also reported in a study of a gay speaker of California English itself, who strengthened these same features and also fronted the GOOSE and GOAT vowels when speaking with friends more than in other speaking situations. The study suggests that a California regional sound can be employed or intensified by gay American men for stylistic effect, including to evoke a "fun" or "partier" persona.[20]

Other characteristics[edit]

Some other speech features are also stereotyped as markers of gay or bisexual males: carefully enunciated pronunciation, wide pitch range (high and rapidly changing pitch), breathy voice, lengthened fricative sounds,[11] pronunciation of /t/ as /ts/ and /d/ as /dz/ (affrication),[21][6] etc. Research shows that gay speech characteristics include many of the same characteristics other speakers use when attempting to speak with special carefulness or clarity, including over-articulating and expanding the vowel spaces in the mouth.[22]


In terms of perception, the "gay sound" in North American English is popularly presumed to involve the pronunciation of sibilants (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/) with noticeable assibilation, sibilation, hissing, or stridency.[11] Frontal, dentalized and negatively skewed articulations of /s/ (the aforementioned "gay lisp") are indeed found to be the most powerful perceptual indicators to a listener of a male speaker's sexual orientation,[23] with experiments revealing that such articulations are perceived as "gayer-sounding" and "younger-sounding".[24] So even if a speaker does not display all of these patterns, the stereotype of gay speech and the coordination of other non-linguistic factors, e.g. dress, mannerisms, can help form the perception of these accents in speech.

Gay speech is also widely stereotyped as resembling women's speech.[25] However, on the basis of phonetics, Benjamin Munson and his colleagues' research has discovered that gay male speech does not simply or categorically imitate female speech.[26]

In one Canadian study, listeners correctly identified gay speakers in 62% of cases.[18] A Stanford University experiment analyzed the acoustics of eight males (four straight and four gay), who were recorded reading passages, through the perception of listener-subjects and tasked these listeners with categorizing speakers by adjectives corresponding to common U.S. stereotypes of gay men.[25] The listeners were generally able to correctly identify the sexual orientation of the speakers, reflecting the stereotypes. However, there were no statistically significant differences the listeners identified, if they existed at all, based on intonation.[25] These findings are representative of other studies as well.[27]

Another study[8] examined the duration of certain sounds (/æ/, /eɪ/, and the onset of /s/ and /l/), frequency of stressed vowels, voice-onset time of voiceless aspirated consonants, and the release of word-final stop consonants. The study found some correlation between these speech traits and sexual orientation, but also clarified the study's narrow scope on only certain phonetic features.[8]

Other scholars' views[edit]

Language and gender scholar Robin Lakoff not only compares gay male with female speech but also claims that gay men deliberately imitate the latter,[28] claiming this to include an increased use of superlatives, inflected intonation, and lisping.[29] Later linguists have re-evaluated Lakoff's claims and concluded that these characterizations are not consistent for women, instead reflecting stereotypes that may have social meaning and importance but that do not fully capture actual gendered language use.[30]

Linguist David Crystal correlated the use among men of an "effeminate" or "simpering" voice with a widened range of pitch, glissando effects between stressed syllables, greater use of fall-rise and rise-fall tones, vocal breathiness and huskiness, and occasionally more switching to the falsetto register.[31] Still, research has not confirmed any unique intonation or pitch qualities of gay speech.[25] Some such characteristics have been portrayed as mimicking women's speech and judged as derogatory toward or trivializing of women.[32]

Other languages[edit]

A study of over 300 Flemish Dutch-speaking Belgian participants, men and women, found a "significantly higher prevalence" of a "lisp"-like feature in gay men than in other demographics.[10] Several studies have also examined and confirmed gay speech characteristics in Puerto Rican Spanish and other dialects of Caribbean Spanish.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gaudio, Rudolf P. (1994). "Sounding Gay: Pitch Properties in the Speech of Gay and Straight Men". American Speech. 69 (1): 30–57. doi:10.2307/455948. JSTOR 455948.
  2. ^ Munson et al., 2006, p. 234.
  3. ^ Munson et al., 2006, p. 216.
  4. ^ Essing (2019). Breaking Away from the Binary.
  5. ^ Simmons (2013). Speaking Like a Queen in RuPaul's Drag Race: Towards a Speech Code of American Drag Queens.
  6. ^ a b Cameron, Deborah, and Don Kulick. 2003. Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  7. ^ Travis, Lee Edward, ed. Handbook of Speech Pathology. New York: Appleton, 1957.
  8. ^ a b c Podesva, Robert J., Sarah J. Roberts, and Kathryn Campbell-Kibler. "Sharing Resources and Indexing Meanings in the Production of Gay Styles." Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice (2001): 175–89.
  9. ^ Swanson, Ana (2015). "What it means to 'sound gay'". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on January 17, 2016. Retrieved December 22, 2019.
  10. ^ a b Van Borsel, John; De Bruyn, Els; Lefebvre, Evelien; Sokoloff, Anouschka; De Ley, Sophia; Baudonck, Nele (2009). "The prevalence of lisping in gay men". Journal of Communication Disorders. 42 (2): 100–106. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2008.08.004. PMID 18954874.
  11. ^ a b c Bowen, Caroline (2002). "Beyond Lisping: Code Switching and Gay Speech Styles". Archived from the original on October 27, 2010. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
  12. ^ McKinstry, Oliver (March 1, 2002). "Queering Multiculturalism". The Mac Weekly. Macalester College. Archived from the original on September 22, 2006. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
  13. ^ Mack & Munson, 2011, p. 200.
  14. ^ Munson et al., 2006, p. 204
  15. ^ Linville, Sue Ellen (1998). "Acoustic Correlates of Perceived versus Actual Sexual Orientation in Men's Speech". Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica. 50 (1): 35–48. doi:10.1159/000021447. PMID 9509737. S2CID 23557815.
  16. ^ Munson, Benjamin; McDonald, Elizabeth C.; DeBoe, Nancy L.; White, Aubrey R. (2006). "The acoustic and perceptual bases of judgments of women and men's sexual orientation from read speech". Journal of Phonetics. 34 (2): 202–240. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2005.05.003.
  17. ^ a b Munson, B., & Zimmerman, L.J. (2006b). Perceptual Bias and the Myth of the 'Gay Lisp'
  18. ^ a b Rynor, Micah (February 18, 2002). "Researchers examine patterns in gay speech". News@UofT. University of Toronto. Archived from the original on November 1, 2007. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
  19. ^ Munson et al., 2006, p. 214-5.
  20. ^ Podesva, Robert J. (2011). "The California Vowel Shift and Gay Identity". American Speech. 86 (1): 32–51. doi:10.1215/00031283-1277501.
  21. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Volume 1: An Introduction (pp. i–xx, 1–278). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-52129719-2 .
  22. ^ Munson et al., 2006, p. 235.
  23. ^ Mack & Munson, 2011, p. 209-210.
  24. ^ Mack & Munson, 2011, abstract.
  25. ^ a b c d Gaudio, Rudolf P (1994). "Sounding Gay: Pitch Properties in the Speech of Gay and Straight Men". American Speech. 69 (1): 30–57. doi:10.2307/455948. JSTOR 455948.
  26. ^ Munson, Benjamin; Babel, Molly (2007). "Loose Lips and Silver Tongues, or, Projecting Sexual Orientation Through Speech". Language and Linguistics Compass. 1 (5): 416–449. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818x.2007.00028.x.
  27. ^ "Gayspeak". glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. glbtq, inc. 2004. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
  28. ^ Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
  29. ^ Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Oxford UP, 2004., additional text.
  30. ^ Queen, Robin M. "'I Don't Speek Spritch': Locating Lesbian Language". Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Ed. Anna Livia and Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 233–256
  31. ^ Crystal, David. English Tone of Voice: Essays in Intonation, Prosody and Paralanguage. London: Edward Arnold, 1975.
  32. ^ Kulick, Don (2000). "Gay and Lesbian Language". Annual Review of Anthropology. 29: 243–85. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.243. S2CID 146726837.
  33. ^ Mack, Sara (2011). "A sociophonetic analysis of /s/ variation in Puerto Rican Spanish". 11th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.

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