FEBRUARY 6, 2009: It has been almost a year since I first posted this on my old blog. Let's take a trip down memory lane (shall we?) for the first in our 'classic blog entries' series.
I received the following E-Mail on Wednesday, February 20, at about 3:30 from Jason DeRusha, a reporter at Channel 4:
I'm a reporter from WCCO-TV, doing a segment tonight on Accents.
As part of my work, a friend asked about the fact that many homosexual males tend to speak with a lisp, and was wondering why that is, and how that came about originally.
I was told you'd be a good one to ask.
Of course I have thoughts on the topic; Are you nuts? In the past, I have not been particularly enthusiastic to talk to the popular media about this topic, because it seems to uncover a lot of people's misconceptions about the nature of human language. Worse yet, it does so in the context of a topic that people have many preconceptions and negative attitudes about, on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I am averse to getting caught up in discussions like those had in the media in about 1997 about African-American English related to the Oakland School District's policies regarding AAE and literacy.
In this case, though, I thought it was right to respond. Why? Well, first, I yammer on incessantly in class that it is our responsibility to be civically engaged, and to work for the greater good. If someone from the community asks me a question about a topic on which I have some expertise, I suppose it is my duty to respond. It's just the right thing to do.
Second, however, it seemed like not doing so would be a little hypocritical, this week in particular. The basic gist of the question that I was being posed was to write about a technical topic for an educated and interested lay audience. I had just collected an assignment in Speech Science in which I asked students to explain analog-to-digital conversion to an educated and interested lay audience. How could I ask my students to do one thing, then shy away from doing the same thing when someone else asked me? I know that my "rateyourprofessor" comments imply (through the clever use of asterisks) that I'm a jerk (I can only imagine that the four asterisks describing me refer to that, and not to some other four-letter word), but I'm not going to apply a double standard. If I ask my students to do one thing, I should do the same when it's asked of me.
So, I responded. The prose flew off my fingertips fast and furious. I was fortunate enough to have Hannah Julien stop by during the middle of my writing, and she copy edited paragraph by paragraph. I hit "send."
Then it didn't show up on the air. No matter. I had a nice E-Mail the next day from Jason DeRusha saying that he appreciated the depth of the response. He said that he would talk about it in his blog. I indicated that I would post the full text of my response to him in my blog, and that, if he liked, he could add a link to my blog in his text.
So here goes. My original response is blow, in bold
Thanks for your question. Indeed there is a strong popular culture stereotype that gay men lisp, at least in English-speaking countries. An immediate challenge to evaluating this stereotype comes when considering what it actually means to lisp. The term 'lisp' has generally been abandoned by speech-language pathologists (people who assess and treat disorders of speech and language). However, we can presume based on older definitions and popular-culture descriptions that a lisp involves some sort of an errored production of sounds like "s". When children produce errors on those sounds, they often produce them either with the tongue protruding between the teeth, making words like "sigh" sound like "thigh," or with air flowing out of the sides of the mouth, making a word like "sigh" sound somewhat 'slushy', almost like "shly." We will call these protruding and slushy productions 'misarticulations.'
Do gay men lisp, in the sense of producing misarticulated "s" sounds? The short answer is No. The long answer is even more interesting.
Previous studies have examined this topic two ways. First, people have compared the "s" productions of self-identified gay and heterosexual men to examine whether the stereotype that gay men lisp can be substantiated. Second, people have played samples of words containing "s" to groups of listeners and asked them to make inferences about the sexuality of the person who produced them. In general, these studies have found that SOME (but definitely not ALL) gay men produce "s" differently from their heterosexual peers. However, the specific characteristics of these distinctive "s" productions are very different from those of misarticulated (i.e., 'lisped') "s". Indeed, at least three studies report that the characteristics of "s" in some self identified gay men is in the opposite direction of what we would expect if the these talkers were producing a 'lisped' "s." They were actually closer to the productions of a hyper-correct, carefully produced "s". Let's call this "clear s". These production patterns are not the inevitable consequence of a person's self-stated sexuality. Though there is a stronger tendency for gay-identified men to produce the "clear s" variant than heterosexual men, some gay-identified men don't produce this variant, and some heterosexual men do.
Perception studies have shown that listeners are sensitive to the relationship between "clear s" and men's sexuality. When people hear one of these "clear s" productions, they tend to label the talker who produced it as gay-sounding. This is true even when they are played audio-only signals of content-neutral speech, i.e., when they hear a production of a single word like "sack", and they don't have any other information about the speaker, like a picture or a video clip. Perceptual studies also show that listeners are sensitive to the stereotype that gay men lisp. People are more likely to label a talker as gay-sounding if they are played a word with a misarticulated "s" than if they are presented with a correctly articulated "s". Put more succinctly, participants' behavior in perception experiments suggests both a knowledge of the actual relationship between "s" production and sexuality ("clear s" talkers are rated as gayer-sounding than talkers who produce a plain "s") and the stereotype (talkers who produce plain "s" are rated as more-heterosexual sounding than those who produce misarticulated "s").
So, we have an interesting dichotomy. Gay men don't lisp. If anything, the speech they produce is far from 'lisped', at least insomuch as we can define 'lisp'. Nonetheless, people seem to believe they do. Why, then, did this stereotype arise? Nobody has a definitive answer to this question, but a few reasonable conjectures can be made. The conjecture starts out with the valid observations that stereotypes about gay men are overwhelmingly pejorative, and that many people hold very negative views about gay men. Maybe the "lisp" stereotype arose as part of a broader popular-culture belief that gay men were somehow weaker, more ineffectual, and child-like--after all, children lisp. We can find some evidence for it by looking at portrayals of gay men in film, particularly in the middle of the last century. Gay male characters were often portrayed as weak and ineffective. Part of this portrayal was often a lisp. Perhaps the lisp was intended as a cue to the audience that they should view the character as child-like and weak. I emphasize that this is just one conjecture about the origin of this stereotype.
You might come back and ask "why do gay men produce especially clear instances of the 's' sound?" If you were to ask this, I would immediately come back and invert your question and ask "Why would anyone--gay or straight--NOT produce especially clear instances of the 's' sound?" After all, a clear "s" would presumably be easier to hear and to understand, particularly in the presence of background noise. Put differently, why do we treat the variant associated with gay-sounding speech as the distinctive variant that requires a special explanation, and not the variant associated with heterosexual-sounding speech? The answer to this question is no less complex than the answer I provided in the last paragraph. One of the hallmarks of human speech production is that it is highly variable. One of the hallmarks of human speech perception is that it is, well, less variable. People can do a good job of understanding lots of different variants of sounds--like plain "s", "clear s", "lisped s", etc.--as instances of a single category, "s". This means that humans are free to use different variants of sounds to construct their social identities without worrying about compromising speech communication. Some groups can use one particular variety of a sound to show--either intentionally or unintentionally--that they are members of a particular social group, and another group can use a different variant. The question of sexuality and "s" isn't unique here. Look around the Metro. Some people have traditional Minnesota pronunciations of words like "boat"--you know the pronunciation I'm talking about--and others have other pronunciations. Think of how a Californian might say "boat." Why is that? Well, certainly some of it relates to where the person is from. If the person is from far outstate, then chances are that they say the traditional Minnesotan "boat" because that's how it was said by everyone who they heard growing up. But once those people move to areas with a little more linguistic diversity, there is nothing keeping them from changing their pronunciation of "boat" to something less Minnesotan-sounding. Why would they continue to produce the Minnesotan "oa" in "boat"? Maybe it's a way of showing--either consciously or tacitly--their identification as someone who is from outstate. And since we're mentioning it, linguistic variation isn't the only way that people can construct social identities. There are lots of different types of clothes that people can wear (though on these cold Minnesota days, one is ill-advised to attempt shorts). Why am I sitting here in jeans, a maroon v-neck sweater, and brown sport coat, and not in a grey wool suit? The answer is that I'm using the permissible variation in clothing to show different aspects of my personality: a sport coat to show I'm a professor, a maroon sweater to show my allegiance to the U of M, and jeans to show people that I'm at heart a casual person. Through my words, my actions, and my clothes, I use permissible variation in human behavior to construct and convey my unique identity. I'm not alone here. We all do.
Thank you for your question. It's an interesting one, and the locus of a great deal of misunderstanding in our culture. I hope this answers helps to clarify your friend's understanding of the topic, and that the WCCO viewership finds it interesting. I appreciated the opportunity to talk about this topic.
Not too shabby, eh?