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Lavender linguistics is a term used by linguists, and advanced by William Leap, to describe the study of language as it is used by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) speakers. It "encompass[es] a wide range of everyday language practices" in LGBTQ communities. The term derives from the longtime association of the color lavender with gay and lesbian communities. The related terms lavender language and simply gay and lesbian language also refer to the language used by LGBTQ speakers. "Language," in this context, may refer to any aspect of spoken or written linguistic practices, including speech patterns and pronunciation, use of certain vocabulary, and, in a few cases, an elaborate alternative lexicon such as Polari.
- 1 Emergence of the field of lavender linguistics
- 2 Theories about the reasons for differences in language use
- 3 Gay male speech patterns
- 4 Lesbian speech pattern
- 5 Issues with culturally specific ideas about sexual identity
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Emergence of the field of lavender linguistics
Early studies in the field of lavender linguistics were dominated by the concept of distinct "lavender lexicons" such as that recorded by Gershon Legman in 1941. In 1995 William Leap, whose work incorporates gay and lesbian culture studies, cultural theory, and linguistics, called for scholarship to move toward a fuller and more nuanced study of gay and lesbian language use.
Anna Livia and Kira Hall have noted that while research in the 1960s and 1970s on the difference between men's and women's speech made the implicit assumption that gender was the relevant way to divide the social space, there is still considerable room for linguistic research based on sexual orientation, rather than gender.
Theories about the reasons for differences in language use
Traditionally it was believed that one's way of speaking is a result of one's identity, but the postmodernist approach reversed this theory to suggest that the way we talk is a part of identity formation, specifically suggesting that gender identity is variable and not fixed.
In the early 20th century sexuality-related theories about language were common (Freud and Psychoanaysis, et al.), using a quite different basis from that used by modern studies on this topic. One of these early views was that homosexuality was a pathology, with certain speech patterns as part of its manifestation. Another was that homosexual individuals used a secret code to indicate their status as homosexual to other members of the group.
In the 1980s the gay community was increasingly viewed as an oppressed minority group, and scholars began to investigate the possibility of characterizing gay language use in a different way, influenced in part by studies of African American Vernacular English. There was a shift in beliefs from language being a result of identity to language being employed to reflect a shared social identity and even to create sexual or gender identities.
Language use as performance
The philosopher of language J.L. Austin argued, in his seminal 1976 work, that language is performative. More specifically, a shared way of speaking can be used to create a single, cohesive identity that in turn organizes political struggle. Sexuality is one form of social identity, discursively constructed and represented. This shared identity can in some cases be strengthened through shared forms of language use and used for political organizing as Austin describes. Language can be used to negotiate relations and contradictions of gender and sexual identities, and can index identity in various ways, even if there is no specific gay or lesbian code of speaking.
Gay men and lesbians may, through the use of language, form speech communities. A speech community is a community that shares linguistic traits and tends to have community boundaries that coincide with social units. Membership in speech communities is often assumed based on stereotypes about the community as defined by non-linguistic factors. Speakers may resist culturally dominant language and oppose cultural authority by maintaining their own varieties of speech.
Language use can also mimic culturally dominant forms or stereotypes. Performing identity can only work as long as the indexes used are conventional and socially recognized, which is why stereotypes are sometimes adopted. Community members can establish their affiliation with the group through shared ways of speaking, acting, and thinking. Such discourses may in turn reproduce or modify social relationships. Sometimes, however, such a code may fall out of use when it becomes widely known and therefore no longer exclusive, as occurred with Polari after it was used on the BBC.
In a particular example of how this process of language community formation happens in a specific LGBTQ community, transsexuals and transvestites may use vocabulary that includes members and excludes non-members to establish social identity and solidarity and to exclude outsiders. As these social groups are particularly likely to be viewed negatively by outsiders, the use of a private language can serve to keep membership in the group a secret to outsiders while allowing group members to recognize their own.
Some members of a community may use stylistic and pragmatic devices to index and exaggerate orientations and identities, but others may deliberately avoid stereotypical speech. Gender is frequently indexed indirectly, through traits that are associated with certain gender identities. In this way, for example, speaking forcefully is associated with masculinity but also with confidence and authority.[clarification needed]
Goals of distinctive language use among gay men
People often are members of multiple communities, and which community they want to be most closely associated with may vary. For some gay men, the primary self-categorization is their identity as gay men. To achieve recognition as such, gay men may recognize and imitate forms of language that reflect the social identity of gay men, or which are stereotypically considered to be characteristic to gay men. For example, the use of female pronouns dissociates gay men from heterosexual norms and designates them in opposition to heterosexual masculinity. The reason for using female pronouns and the frequency of use may vary, however. For example, they may be used only in jest, or may be used more seriously to stabilize a group of gay men and bond its members together.
Goals of distinctive language use among lesbians and heterosexual women
The development of gay identity may differ for men and women. For many women, regardless of orientation, female identity is more important than sexual identity. Where gay men need to distance themselves from heterosexual masculinity, due to the strict enforcement of male roles in Western society, lesbians may be more concerned about sexism than about lesbian identity.
Most studies of lesbian speech patterns focus on conversational patterns, as in Coates and Jordan (1997) and Morrish and Saunton (2007). Women draw on a variety of discourses, particularly feminist discourses, to establish themselves as not submissive to heteropatriarchy by using cooperative all-female talk, which is marked by less distinct turns and a more collaborative conversational environment. Often the conversational bond between women overrides their sexual identities. However, the content of lesbian discourse can separate those who use it from heteronormativity and the values of dominant cultures. Collaborative discourse involves resisting dominant gender norms through more subtle creation of solidarity, and not necessarily resisting “gender-typical” linguistic behavior.
An example of a distinctive way of speaking for a female community is that of female bikers. Dykes on Bikes, a mostly lesbian group, and Ladies of Harley, a mostly heterosexual group, have demonstrated shared experiences. Though the two cultures differ, both have a focus on female bonding and motorcycles and have a shared female biker language. Their shared language helps to establish their shared identity in a largely male-dominated domain and to mark boundaries between them and traditional femininity.
Changing styles of speech
Changing speech styles, or code-switching, can indicate which identity individuals want to put forward as primary at a given time. Choices of language use among gay men depend on the audience and context, and shift depending on situational needs such as the need to demonstrate or conceal gay identity in a particular environment. Likewise, lesbians may foreground lesbian identity in some contexts but not in others. Podesva discusses an example of code-switching where a gay lawyer is being interviewed about anti-gay discrimination on the radio, so he balances the need to sound recognizably gay and the need to sound recognizably educated, since "gay speech" tends to be associated with frivolity and lack of education.
“Exploratory switching” can be used to determine whether an interlocutor shares the speaker's identity. For example, a gay man might use certain key words and mannerisms generally known by the community as a test to see whether they are recognized by the interlocutor. This allows the gay man to establish solidarity with a community member previously unknown to him without having to disclose his orientation to a heterosexual and potentially hostile person. However, inconsistency of language use between different sub-groups of the gay community, along with the existence of non-members who may be familiar with a gay mode of speech, can make such exploratory switching unreliable.
People may also switch use code-switching to comment on society or for entertainment. Black drag performers often use stereotypical “female white English” to disrupt societal assumptions about gender and ethnicity and to express criticisms of these assumptions. Imitations do not necessarily represent actual language use of a group, but rather the generally recognized stereotypical speech of that group. In the language of drag performers, language play is also marked by juxtaposition of contradictory aspects such as very proper language mixed with obscenities, adding to the queens' and kings' deliberate disruption of cultural and linguistic norms.
Issues with studying speech patterns in relation to sexuality and sexual identity
Don Kulick argues that the search for a link between sexual identity categories and language is misplaced, since studies have failed to show that the language gay men and lesbians use is unique. Kulick argues that though some researchers may be politically motivated to imagine a gay community that is a unified whole and identifiable through linguistic means, this speech community does not necessarily exist as such. Kulick points out that the gay community is not homogeneous, nor is its language use. Features of “gay speech” are not used consistently by gay individuals, nor are they consistently absent from the speech of all heterosexual individuals. Further, Kulick takes issue with frequently circular definitions of queer speech. He argues that speech patterns cannot be labeled gay and lesbian language simply because they are used by gay and lesbian people.
Studies of a speech community that presuppose the existence of that community may reproduce stereotypes that fail to accurately depict the social reality of variance among subgroups within a community and overlapping identities for individuals. Furthermore, studies of gay male language use often look at middle class European Americans who are out as gay to the exclusion of other subgroups of the gay community, and hence may draw misleading conclusions about the community as a whole.
Rusty Barrett suggests that the idea of the homogeneous speech community could perhaps be more accurately replaced by one of a queer community based on community spirit or a queer cultural system, since language use varies so greatly. Kulick proposes, instead of studying speech communities that he concludes "do not and cannot exist" because of methodological problems, researchers should study "language and desire" through examining repression in the context of linguistics, considering both what is said and what is not or cannot be said. Kulick addresses the need for consideration of the role of sexuality in sexual identity, unlike some lavender linguists who neglect sexuality in favor of linguistic features that might be more likely than sexuality to legitimize gay identity.
Gay male speech patterns
Differences in speech patterns
Linguists have attempted to isolate exactly what makes gay men's language different from that of their heterosexual counterparts. This is a difficult process, because there are many variations within gay and straight male groups. Within each group, there is a wide range of speech that might be categorized as more masculine or feminine, and furthermore, these gender descriptors do not comprehensively describe the range of vocal characteristics. It is also difficult to isolate markers of gay speech, since the gay community consists of many smaller groups that make up a diverse subculture. Categorizing leather daddies, drag queens, circuit boys, gay prostitutes, activists, and “straight-acting” males as one group would obviously be an inaccurate portrayal of the gay male community.
Despite these hurdles, however, linguists have studied gay men’s speech as a field since the early 20th century. This study is almost always done by contrasting gay men's speech with straight male speech and comparing it to female speech.
Comparison to female speech
Gay speech has stereotypically been thought of as resembling women’s speech. In her work Language and Woman’s Place, Robin Lakoff not only compares gay male speech with women’s speech traits, but she also claims that gay men deliberately imitate these traits. According to Lakoff, stereotypical gay male speech takes on the characteristics of women’s speech as she describes them. These include an increased use of superlatives (e.g. divine), inflected intonation, and lisping. Later linguists have reevaluated Lakoff's claims and concluded that these characterizations are not consistent for women, but rather reflect common beliefs about how women speak. These beliefs may have social meaning and importance, but do not fully capture actual gendered language use.
David Crystal also describes gay male speech as “effeminate.” He describes the use of a "simpering" voice, for instance, a characteristic that for him is largely attributable to the use of a wider pitch-range than is normal (for men), with glissando effects between stressed syllables, a more frequent use of complex tones (e.g. the fall-rise and the rise-fall), the use of breathiness and huskiness in the voice, and switching to a higher (falsetto) register from time to time." These characteristics are not often portrayed as positive or indicative of a neutral identification of gay men with women, rather mimicking women's speech and using female pronouns has often been judged as derogatory and as trivializing women.
The problem with the studies that focus on gay male speech is that they simply compare gay speech with women’s speech in hopes of categorizing how masculine or feminine these types of speech are, without actually defining gendered speech terms. They claim that deviance from an undefined norm makes one effeminate. In early works, the comparison of "masculine" and "feminine" speech tends to be based on gender-biased views, which is important to realize, particularly when claims are not supported by empirical evidence. In Lee Edward Travis’ work, for example, a speech pathologist claims:
"A consistently high-pitched voice in the late adolescent and adult male is one of the most distressing of voice defects. The resemblance to the female voice suggests a lack of masculinity."
Social perception study
Rudolf Gaudio’s social perception experiment analyzed the acoustics of male speech and listeners’ perception of it. Eight male volunteers aged 21–31 participated. Four of the men identified as gay, and the other four as straight. The volunteers were individually asked to read two passages while being recorded. The first passage was a short paragraph from an accounting text, while the other was an emotional monologue from a play entitled Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein. The volunteers were asked to read the first passage (accounting passage) as if they were giving a lecture to an accounting class, and the second passage (dramatic passage) as if they were reciting lines for a play. After the volunteers were recorded reading the two passages, they each had a private interview where they were asked general questions about their lives.
Sixteen segments of the recordings were created for analysis, which was to be done by thirteen undergraduate volunteer listener-subjects. The sixteen segments were then divided into two groups: the first eight segments were recordings of each speaker reading the accounting passage and the second eight were recordings of each speaker reading the dramatic passage. Listener-subjects were to categorize each of the recorded speeches using four semantic differential pairs (straight/gay, effeminate/masculine, reserved/emotional, and ordinary/affected) that corresponded to commonly held stereotypes of gay men in the United States. The polar adjective pairs were then used to rate how effeminate or masculine the speech was based on the listener-subjects’ choices.
Results of the study
The listener-subjects were generally able to correctly identify the sexual orientation of the speakers based on the recorded speech segments. The listener-subjects’ ratings of the recorded speech segment using the four sets of polar adjective pairs reflected common American stereotypes of gay and straight men’s speech.
Though the experiment did not isolate what exactly makes up gay male speech, it seemed to indicate that variations in intonation and pitch affect the judgment of men’s speech as “gay” or “straight.” However, the difference was not statistically significant and did not occur in all speech contexts. It seems for this reason that the differences the listeners identified, if they existed at all, were not intonational. Given the small study size it is hard to know if there were in fact any differences.
Traits believed to characterize the speech of gay men
Robert J. Podesva, Sarah J. Roberts, and Kathryn Campbell-Kibler have studied differences in gay male speech by examining the following traits in their study, Sharing Resources and Indexing Meanings in the Production of Gay Styles:
- Duration of /æ/, /eɪ/
- Duration of onset /s/, /l/
- Fundamental frequency (f0) properties (max, min, range, and value at vowel midpoint) of stressed vowels
- Voice onset time (VOT) of voiceless aspirated plosives
- Release of word-final plosives
While the researchers found some correlation between these speech traits and sexual orientation, they clarify that these traits characterize only one of the many speech styles used by gay men.
Slang and word use
Some studies have been conducted into how often gay men use homosexual slang terms that are often not understandable to those outside of the LGBT community. The particular slang used by gay men as well as lesbians has been recorded in a number of specialist dictionaries, and according to researcher Greg Jacobs, is that the terminology listed in said dictionaries revolves heavily around sexual matters including terms for sex organs, preferences and activities, although Jacobs questions whether this accurately reflects the amount of time spent by gay people talking about sex and sexuality or whether it is down to methodological assumptions that conversations amongst LGBT people is primarily dominated with talk about sex.
The conversational use of sex terms was studied by the researcher Malcolm E. Lumby. Lumby showed gay pornographic imagery to men and asked them to discuss the imagery: conversations between gay men used more slang and fewer "dictionary" (i.e., commonly accepted) terms about sexual behavior than conversations where both participants were heterosexual males or where the pair consists of one heterosexual and one homosexual male. In reviewing the study, Greg Jacobs notes that there may have been methodological issues as the findings may reflect homophobia among the heterosexual participants.
Studies have also been done into whether words used within the gay community are understood by heterosexuals. A study of deaf sign language users showed that all the gay male participants understood the sign for a bathhouse, that 83% of lesbians knew the sign. This compared to zero heterosexual men and only one out of eleven heterosexual women knowing the sign.
Lesbian speech pattern
Distinctions of lesbian speech
Distinguishing characteristics of lesbian speech are much debated and have not been unanimously established or agreed upon. However, in experiments, self-identified lesbians tended to speak at a lower fundamental frequency, and with lower pitch variation than did self-identified heterosexual women. 
Robin Queen argues that analyses have been too simplistic. She suggests that a uniquely lesbian language is constructed through the combination of sometimes-conflicting stylistic tropes: stereotypical women's language (e.g. hypercorrect grammar), stereotypical nonstandard forms associated with the (male) working class (e.g. contractions), stereotypical gay male lexical items, and stereotypical lesbian language (e.g. flat intonation, cursing).
Sometimes lesbians deliberately avoid stereotypical female speech, according to Queen, in order to distance themselves from "normative" heterosexual female speech patterns. Clothing and physical mannerisms, however, are seen as more likely indicators of a woman's sexual orientation. Because femininity is a marked style, adopting it is more noticeable than avoiding it, which may add to the lack of socially salient styles for lesbians in contrast with socially identifiable stereotypically gay male speech styles.
Birch Moonwomon conducted an experiment asking listeners to identify female speakers as either lesbian or straight based solely on voice. The listeners were unable to successfully distinguish the lesbian women from the heterosexual woman based on the recordings they listened to, but unlike Gaudio, Moonwomon did not analyze the intonational features of the speaker's voices. Moonwomon chose to interpret the lack of differentiation as the listeners' "unwillingness to acknowledge lesbian presence". However, the results could also be taken as evidence that there are no salient distinctions between the speech of lesbians and heterosexual women, or that listener evaluation of female sexuality depends on more than intonation.
There is a stronger argument for lesbian slang. In his article Dyke Diction, Leonard R.N. Ashley lists nearly eighty "slang words commonly used among lesbians" that typically refer to the female genitalia and sex acts. "What H. L. Mencken said of nuns in cloisters, that they have developed their own slang (amusing but of course genteel) can, on the whole, be said of lesbians."
The most prominent example of lesbian slang is the rising reappropriation of the word dyke. Though still in many contexts considered a pejorative word, dyke has become a symbol for increasing acceptance of the lesbian movement and identity. Lesbians themselves use it to further solidarity and unity among their community. Examples include "dyke marches" (female-exclusive gay pride parades) and "dykes with tykes" (describing lesbian motherhood). Like other minorities, female homosexuals are slowly reclaiming a word that was once used to hurt them in the past.
Issues with culturally specific ideas about sexual identity
According to many language scholars, it is misleading to assume that all sex and gender roles are the same as those that are salient within Western society or that the linguistic styles associated with given groups will be like the styles associated with similarly identified Western groups.
Examples of non-Western sexual identities and their language use
Baklàs are homosexual Filipino men, but the concept of Baklà identity does not map cleanly to Western male homosexuality. With Baklàs, as with other non-Western sexual minority groups, sexual identity is very closely related to gender identity. Baklàs often assume female attributes and dress like women. They also use female terms for themselves and occasionally for their body parts, and are sometimes referred to and refer to themselves as not being “real men”.
Although they have contact with other gay cultures through technology, Baklà culture remains fairly distinct. They have their own rapidly shifting linguistic code, called Swardspeak, which is influenced by Spanish and English loan words. This code mostly consists of lexical items, but also includes sound changes such as [p] to [f]. Some Baklàs who move to the United States continue to use this code, but others abandon it, regarding it as a Filipino custom that is out of place abroad and replacing it with aspects of American gay culture.
Hijras are Indians who refer to themselves as neither man nor woman. Some describe hijras as a “third sex.” Their identity is distinct from a Western gay or transgender identity, though many hijras have male sexual partners. There is a distinctive mode of speech often attributed to hijras, but it is stereotypical frequently derogatory. Hijras sometimes adopt feminine mannerisms and pronouns, depending on context and their interlocutors, to create solidarity or distance. They also use stereotypically male elements of speech, such as vulgarity. Their combined use of masculine and feminine speech styles can be see as reflecting their ambiguous sexual identities and challenging dominant sexuality and gender ideologies.
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