Samantha Dao, Audrey Harrison, Sonia Hauser, Elizabeth Rutkevich
Have you ever thought, “Wow. That person sounds so gay.”? Maybe it’s because of the way the person speaks –his/her pitch is higher/lower than a straight person’s, the pitch at the end of his/her sentence is higher than the rest, or they have a melodious/creaky voice. But is there actually a difference between the way queer and straight people speak or is it just a stereotype? Is language used as an identifier of sexuality?
We were interested in these questions, but specifically if there’s a difference between queer and straight women’s speech. Therefore, we did an experiment, in which we asked 20 women, 10 straight and 10 queer, to tell us about a time in which they almost died and analyzed their speech to determine if a difference exists.
Our hypothesis was that there would be no significant differences in the phonetics, or in the way sound in speech is produced, except that queer women would have a bit more roughness or creakiness in some parts of their casual speech. We also believed that queer women would speak at a lower pitch than straight women. However, after getting the results, we found that our hypothesis wasn’t entirely correct. Can you guess what part of our hypothesis was proven wrong?
Language is so powerful and can let people know a lot about ourselves. Beyond what you literally say, the way you speak can cause people to form opinions about you, or what you are implying can be interpreted differently by different people. Stereotypes even in language are constantly shaping the way people see us (Waksler 2001), so how can we use language to align ourselves with our identities instead of projected ones other people place on us?
We perform gender, sexuality, and identity constantly, so how is language used to perform these things? We did a little experiment to see if there is a difference in the ways that queer and straight women cultivate their own identities through language. We concocted a study involving 20 UCLA undergraduate women from ages 18-24, half being straight and the other half being queer. We asked participants to tell us about a time they almost died. This could be funny and dramatized or serious, whatever they wanted, in hopes to get them to speak casually, how they would outside the space of an interview.
We compared how many times each group used vocal fry, the creakiness found in speech, typically in vowels (for example in this video clip from 0:00-0:31), and upspeak, the rising in voice at the end of sentences (as demonstrated in this video from 0:00-1:03), and rated overall pitch, the highness or lowness of voice, from 1-5 (you can learn about high and low pitch in this video). We were curious about pitch because some studies say it differs between the two groups (Barron-Lutzross 2015) while others say there are no significant differences (Waksler 2001). Vocal fry and upspeak are stereotypical of women’s speech as a whole.
Before doing the actual experiment, we thought queer and straight women would have similar usage of upspeak because they belong to the same gendered social category, so parts of their identity formations and expressions would be similar (Valocchi 2005). However, we thought queer women would use more vocal fry and have a deeper overall tone than straight women to differentiate themselves and construct distinct identities from straight women.
There is a cultural awareness and focus on the way gay men speak. The stereotypically effeminate “gay voice” is characteristic of a higher pitch, slight lisp, and hyper-enunciation. The documentary Do I Sound Gay? questions where the “gay voice” comes from and some possible explanations of this phenomena (Thorpe 2014). The documentary concludes that gay men’s voices are a complex mix of the presence of female role models, group identification, and the persistent association with the aesthete stereotype (similar to a dandy, aesthetes are a Wildean, intellectual, effeminate man). Here is a clip from The New York Times of Thorpe, along with a linguist featured in his documentary, describing the specifically male “gay voice.”
What, then, does a lesbian or queer woman’s voice sound like? Are these categories distinct enough to draw phonetic conclusions? In what ways are gender and sexuality intertwined in the way we speak, complicating intra-gender distinctions? To answer philosophical questions about gender we looked to Judith Butler’s seminal Gender Trouble. Butler proposes the idea of “performativity” in relation to gender–all gender is a performance and reliant on external interaction. Others pick up gender cues from the ways we dress, speak, and move. So how do queer and straight women express their identities and gender differently? Or is the category of woman unifying enough to surpass sexuality?
In order to find out if there was a difference in speech between queer and straight women, 10 UCLA undergraduate women from ages 18-24 in each category were asked to tell about a time in which they almost died. This question was to make sure that they would speak their mind without worrying who they were talking to since the purpose of the experiment was to compare casual talk. Participants were friends and acquaintances and were asked to be recorded before the interview took place. The recordings were analyzed for upspeak, vocal fry, and pitch. Since each interview differed in the length of time, vocal fry and upspeak were analyzed by times used per minute. Pitch was determined on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest, and it was evaluated by the interviewer.
There was no significant difference in the average amount of upspeak used per minute between the two groups with 4.56 and 4.6 upspeak used per minute in queer and straight women’s speech respectively. (Fig. 1). However, as seen in figure 1, queer women used slightly more vocal fry (3.5 usage per minute) than straight women (2.82 usage per minute). There was no significant difference between the pitch of both groups as the pitch was measured to be 2.95 and 3.05 for queer and heterosexual women, respectively (Fig. 2).
Discussion and conclusions
The results of the study revealed a ubiquity of phonetic linguistic performance among women regardless of their self-identified sexualities. The lack of significant differences in pitch and upspeak occurrence, and the predicted, slight variation in vocal fry occurrence points to the similarities in the phonetic patterns of all the women aged 18-24, in our immediate UCLA-range community that participated in the study. This predictable finding about the range of women’s speech within immediate speech communities and social networks carries implications that gender categories and socialization are stronger determinants of speech than sexuality is.
There are possible errors associated with our methods. Participants could still have modified their speech since it was an interview. Friends were interviewed which could have affected the speech samples, but keep in mind that the experiment was comparing casual speak, so in fact this could have been beneficial. The sample size was relatively small and involved a specific group, so the results may not be representative to all queer and heterosexual women. The evaluation of pitch was subjective, and there was possible bias as prior research was done. Lastly, recordings might not be true to the actual voice because there’s error in the recording equipment. The errors were minimized as best as possible.
For future studies involving the role of sexuality in women’s linguistic performance, non-phonetic features, such as the frequency of tag questions and filler words, could be tested for differences between queer and heterosexual women. It could also be beneficial to perform a preliminary study evaluating whether there are pre-existing perceived differences between and stereotypes about the speech of queer versus straight women.
We would like to thank the volunteers that participated in the study and our teaching assistant Madeleine Booth and Professor Daria Bahtina for guiding us through our experiment.
Barron-Lutzross, A. (2015). “The Production and Perception of a Lesbian Speech Style.” UC Berkeley PhonLab Annual Report, 11. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7f6332bh
Butler, J. (2006). “Gender Trouble.” Routledge.
Howard, G. and Thorpe, D. (Producers) and Thorpe, D. (Director). (2014). “Do I Sound Gay?” United States: Sundance Selects.
Valocchi, S. (2005). “Not Yet Queer Enough: The Lessons of Queer Theory for the Sociology of Gender and Sexuality.” GENDER & SOCIETY, 19(6), 750-770, DOI: 10.1177/0891243205280294.
Waksler, R. (2001). “Pitch range and women’s sexual orientation.” Word, 52(1), 69-77, DOI: 10.1080/00437956.2001.11432508