Where did the gay lisp stereotype come from

first_imgJACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—The notion of a “gay lisp”—an offensive stereotype to many people—has been a confusing phenomenon for linguists. For decades, popular depictions of gay men have sometimes portrayed them pronouncing the letter “s” as more of a “th” sound—even though studies have failed to find “lispier” speech in gay men than in straight men. Now, however, preliminary data from a small study presented here last week at the biannual Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) show that young boys who don’t identify with their assigned gender use “th”-like pronunciation at slightly higher rates than their peers who do, although they seem to grow out of that tendency. The authors speculate that stereotypes of gay adults may be rooted in the speech of boys who go on to identify as gay.Benjamin Munson, a speech scientist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who presented the research, has published many studies on how patterns of speech sometimes do correlate with gender and sexual orientation. We learn speech patterns as part of our social identity, and the letter “s,” in particular, is charged with social meaning, Munson says: “You get a lot of mileage out of having a very distinctive ‘s.’” His previous research showed, for example, that even though gay men don’t seem to lisp their “s”s more frequently than straight men, they do produce a slightly crisper “s” sound, with a narrow frequency range and a high peak frequency. (“S” sounds produced by women in that study were crisper still.) To show the contrast, Munson has recorded a sentence in three exaggerated speech styles that contain different “s” pronunciations: the first has an especially crisp “s,” the second a less crisp “s” that is closer to the “sh” sound, and the third a more lisplike “th”-like sound. Munson wanted to explore how the crisp “s” speech style might emerge in young men. He hypothesized that boys who would eventually identify as gay would, as their speech developed, gradually diverge from their peers in an increasingly crisp pronunciation of “s.” To test the idea, Munson chose a unique population: 5- to 13-year-old boys diagnosed with gender dysphoria. These children feel a distressing mismatch between the gender they experience and the one assigned them at birth, as well as a desire to be another gender, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They are also statistically more likely to identify as gay in adulthood, Munson explains. “It’s not like every gay adult was a boy with gender dysphoria, nor does every boy with gender dysphoria become a gay adult,” he says, but “this is the best hope we have for looking at the evolution of this [speech] style within an individual.” Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*)center_img The team looked at 34 boys with gender dysphoria recruited from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, and 34 age-matched boys without gender dysphoria. The researchers asked boys from each group to pronounce a series of words and sentences loaded with “s” sounds, such as “The squirrel sat on the seesaw.” They then analyzed the acoustic properties of the recordings. In a crisper “s,” more energy should be concentrated at higher frequencies, and very little energy at lower ones.Surprisingly, samples from boys with gender dysphoria didn’t show that feature. Instead, they showed a more even spread of energy across the frequency spectrum—a characteristic of the stereotypical, lispy “th” sound that Munson has failed to find in gay adults. Boys without gender dysphoria didn’t show this speech pattern, and as boys with the condition got older they seemed to lose the lisp. It vanished by age 11.There are two possible explanations for the findings, Munson says. One is that the lisp is really a feature of gender dysphoria—possibly a product of the genetic and environmental factors that lead to the condition. And because adults have learned to associate the pattern with seemingly less masculine boys, they assume adult gay men do it as well, hence the stereotype.That suggestion is worth considering, says Paul Reed, sociophoneticist at University of South Carolina, Columbia , who was not involved in the research. “How concrete [the connection] is would need to be researched,” he says, “but it’s definitely plausible.” However, Reed points out that stereotypes can also arise in a more arbitrary way—when a listener makes a random guess about a speech style they perceive as vaguely different.The other possibility, says Munson, is that parents of kids with the lispy “th” were more likely to bring them to the mental health center, which would have biased his study. If that’s the case, he says, no firm conclusions about learned speech patterns can be drawn from the work.In upcoming research, he plans to study how children interpret the social meaning of “s” sounds and whether, like adults, they perceive these sounds as more feminine, or adopt them because they carry other subtle meanings, such as a sense of precision or high level of education. “Which of those meanings the kids would be hooking up on,” he says, “I don’t know.” Emaillast_img