Monthly Archives: December 2015

Review: Do I Sound Gay?

do i sound gay?

Recently, the documentary Do I Sound Gay? was added to Netflix. I decided to watch the documentary and do a linguistically-informed review of the movie.

Do I Sound Gay? is a very personal documentary. The filmmaker, David Thorpe, starts filming as part of a project to sound less gay. He has just ended a relationship. His speech embarrasses him. His language is symbolic of his identity as a gay man in the US, and he targets it as the root of his self esteem issues. For Thorpe, like for so many others, language discrimination is a proxy for other types of discrimination, in this case homophobia. As interviewee Dan Savage puts it, it’s “the last chunk of internalized homophobia, is this hatred of how they sound.”

Thorpe consults his friends, speech pathologists, linguists, films studies researchers and celebrities. The film is more personal than scientific. All of the information about gay speech is presented through the lens of how Thorpe can sound less gay. Speech pathologists urge him to shorten his vowel sounds and use a falling intonation rather than a rising intonation in his sentences. Linguists Ben Munson and Ron Smyth discuss “s”, a well-known marker of gender and sexuality, and the fact that gay kids are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a lisp. Smyth discusses other patterns associated with gay speech such as a loud, released “t” and longer vowels.

In general, though, the linguistic details are peripheral to the bigger story: why do gay men want to sound less gay? How does our culture see gay speech? When Thorpe asks Dan Savage why gay men prefer partners who sound less effeminate, his response is “Misogyny.” The issues at the root of the conversation are about language and power.

Overall, as a linguist, I’d recommend this movie, just don’t expect it to be too scientific. But that doesn’t mean you won’t learn something.

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What Makes Men and Women Sound Different? Part Two

There are many linguistic features that contribute to one’s gender identity (and the perception thereof). This post about resonant frequencies is the second in a three-part series of blog posts about what makes men and women sound different.

In the last blog post in this series, I discussed differences in men and women’s speech and how social influence as well as the acoustic reality of sexual dimorphism affects pitch. However, pitch is not the only aspect of speech affected by the size differences  between men and women. As you can see from the diagram below, men not only have larger vocal folds but they also have longer vocal tracts (the “vocal tract” refers to all of the organs involved in speech, between the lips and the vocal folds), due in part to the fact that men tend to be larger than women and also because men’s larynxes lower during puberty.

As such, the acoustics of men’s voices are changed in ways other than pitch. Because the “tube” in front of an articulation (see my post on vowels and consonants for more information about articulation) is larger, other frequencies that make up the wave found will be lower, just like the pitch is lower when the vocal folds are larger.

Vowel differences between men and women are easily measurable but tend not to be easy to hear; our brains do an excellent job adjusting for the difference in vocal tract size in speech. Linguists characterize vowels using the first and second resonant frequencies of the vocal tract. Resonant frequencies are the frequencies at which an object will vibrate the most (i.e. be the loudest). Every object has a natural resonant frequency, and when that frequency is met with a sound at the same frequency, the result can be disastrous. Think of a glass being shattered by an opera singer: that happens because the singer sings at the the resonant frequency of the glass. Likewise, the Tacoma Bridge collapsed because the frequency of the sound of the wind was the same as  the bridge’s resonant frequency. Vocal tracts, like all objects, have resonant frequencies, but these resonant frequencies can change because we can manipulate our articulators (anything we use to form speech, including the tongue, the lips, the teeth, the alveolar ridge, the velum, etc.).

via All Things Linguistic

The differences between the resonant frequencies of different sounds in men and women’s speech can be  explained in part by size differences but, like pitch, can also be exaggerated in order for speakers to perform gender. There are two ways to create lower formant frequencies in one’s speech: to have a larger vocal tract, or  to move the tongue back a little while speaking. One study found that children differed in their resonant frequency production as early as four years old, before any major differentiation in size between male and female children is observed.

Consonants, too, are affected by the size of the vocal tract. Think about the sounds “s” as in “Sam” and “sh” as in “sham.” The “s” sound is a higher-frequency sound than the “sh” sound, because the “s” is pronounced further forward in the mouth. The “s” sound is a major cultural marker of gender. When we hear an “s” pronounced further in the front of the mouth, we associate that sound with femininity, partially because it is higher frequency and gives the impression that the speaker has a smaller vocal tract. This fronted “s” is what non-linguists often refer to as the “gay lisp.” It’s not quite a “th” sound like a stereotypical (inter)dental lisp. However, it is pronounced closer to the teeth (where “th” is pronounced) than most “s” sounds, which are produced by holding the tongue very near the bony ridge behind the front teeth, known as the “alveolar ridge.” Conversely, an “s” pronounced further back, closer to the “sh” sound, will sound more “masculine.” It may also sound more rural to many American English speakers.

While these differences are mainly based on size differences, like pitch, they can be manipulated in order for speakers to perform a gender identity. These manipulations occur even while the vast majority of speakers are completely unaware of them. In the third installment of this series, I’ll talk about social differences between men and women that are not so easily linked to biology.

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Thinking Outside the Box

clutching pearls

Feminist scholars have a term for the orientation of Western culture: androcentrism. It refers to a society in which men are at the center of the culture, and women and non-binary people are considered peripheral to the culture, which is inherently masculine. The androcentric model, in medicine, refers to the practice of placing the male body as the norm, and the female body as either abnormal or derivative of the male body.

Like every other field, medicine is affected both by societal influences and by the language resulting from those societal influences. Dictionaries are a good place to investigate these influences, in their role as authoritative guides on “correct” language usage. Victoria Braun and Celia Kitzinger conducted a study of 12 medical dictionaries and 16 English-language dictionaries, looking specifically at definitions of women’s genitals compared to men’s genitals. The study is new (well, 2001) but the cultural messages are old: women’s bodies are passive and men’s are active, women’s exist while men’s are functional.

In all of the dictionaries that Braun and Kitzinger studied, the definition of the penis was function-based. All of the dictionaries made some allusion to the penis’s sexual function and referred to it as an “organ.” By contrast, according to the Braun and Kitzinger, all of the dictionaries represent “the vagina as an open space, rather than as a body part adjusted for particular function.” Most used words like “tube” or “canal,” and many of the descriptions were location-based, relying on the existence of other body parts (like the cervix and the vulva) for the definition. The authors point out that most dictionaries left out any mention of the vagina’s active physical abilities, such as the ability to stretch.

The story is a little less bleak for the clitoris — if it’s even included, which is not the case for one of the medical (!) dictionaries — but only because it is “represented as a less developed, or smaller, form of the penis.” All of the medical definitions define the clitoris in terms of the penis, and only four of those dictionaries describe the penis as “homologous to the clitoris.” Because of its general definition as an underdeveloped penis, the main function alluded to in the definitions is the erectile capability of the clitoris.

Like the vagina, however, the focus of the clitoris is again on location. All but one of the medical dictionaries and 14 of the 16 English language dictionaries provide information about where the clitoris is located. Braun and Kitzinger quip that this information is “presumably included to help the reader solve the mystery of where a clitoris might actually be found.” This point of view seems to be based on the assumption that the typical reader will be a hapless straight man who only wants directions to the aforementioned genitalia but wouldn’t know what to do with them when he got there.

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