Beyond lisping - Code Switching and Gay Speech Styles
"Homophobia, it seems, is the only prejudice that remains respectable, that has not been de-legitimized, which has not been cut off from its wellsprings. It is the last frontier, as it were, of inveterate, unreasonable, hatred." Rabbi Alexander Schindler 1925-2000
This article, written in 2002 by Caroline Bowen is about code switching, gay speech styles, and speech characteristics including lisping.
One of the most prominent search words for this site is 'lisp'. Typical search questions include 'Why do gay people talk with a lisp?', 'Can I get rid of my gay lisp?' and 'Do gays lisp all the time?' These questions really are the stuff of multiple research projects and doctoral dissertations, and there are no ready answers available.
Fascinated by the sheer volume of such searches, and the interest people have in the connections between gay speech styles and lisping, I did a few searches on the topic myself.
Although I found very little material written from a linguistics or communication sciences perspective, there were a few relevant pages, such as the article here, discussion here, and some biting satire. The work of Henry Rogers and Ron Smyth at the University of Toronto stood out from the crowd.
From 'Gay Voice' in The University of Toronto Magazine, June 2002:
"Why do some gay men “sound” gay? After three years of research, linguistics professors Henry Rogers and Ron Smyth may be on the verge of answering that question. After identifying phonetic characteristics that seem to make a man’s voice sound gay, their best hunch is that some gay men may subconsciously adopt certain female speech patterns. They want to know how men acquire this manner of speaking, and why – especially when society so often stigmatizes those with gay-sounding voices.
Rogers and Smyth are also exploring the stereotypes that gay men sound effeminate and are recognized by the way they speak. They asked people to listen to recordings of 25 men, 17 of them gay. In 62 per cent of the cases the listeners identified the sexual orientation of the speakers correctly. Perhaps fewer than half of gay men sound gay, says Rogers. “The straightest-sounding voice in the study was in fact a gay man, and the sixth gayest-sounding voice was a straight man.”
Jack has a lisp
Responding to the search terms 'gay + lisp', dependable Google led me to Gays in the Media by a student writer, Rachel Brandsma. Her essay provides brief discussion of the stereotypical depiction of a gay man in the television sitcom Will and Grace.
"Jack has a lisp and uses a lot of gestures and hand movements as well as exaggerated expressions.He mainly dresses in pastels and is full of energy. Jack also uses terminology that many might consider to be characterized as 'gay'. This includes words and phrases such as 'That little tartlet!' or 'I’m a celebrity' and 'It’s so festive."
Why does Jack lisp?
When explanations for lisping in gay men and the lisping gay stereotype are sought, a chicken and egg discussion often ensues. One hypothesis is that given the stereotype many gay men may actually take on a dentalized or interdental /s/ pattern as an indirect statement about wanting to identify with, and be a part of, the gay community. There are also interesting arguments in favour of a genetic explanation. Whatever the reason, lisping in gay men certainly helps straight people with their gaydar!
While Jack is openly gay, Mr Humphries from Grace Brothers clothing department in the long running British sitcom Are You Being Served (AYBS) 1972-1984 provides a reasonably well known example of a character whose sexuality remains ambiguous. We are never told directly that the John Inman (1935-2007) character is gay. James Han, AYBS Fan Site owner writes:
"He constantly acts like a stereotypical gay male: limp-wristed, never walking always flouncing, obsessed about keeping a youthful appearance, going gaga over cute guys, dressing in drag, etc. Mr. Humphries, although very popular, was (and is) a controversial character, disliked by many: first of all, many people hated gays in general, and those who were accepting of homosexuals disapproved of the fact that Mr. Humphries only served to further the stereotypes created by bigoted people..."
There is a steady flow of email from SLP/SLT consumers and professionals, and interested others about lisping and gay speech styles, including a friendly note in 1999 from a man in Toronto who said that he wanted to nominate me as 'a gay icon for the new millennium'! Then there were the umpteen wits who asked, 'Whose cruel idea was it for the word "lisp" to have an "s" in it?'
As well, there has been correspondence from academic researchers in the areas of communication sciences, linguistics and psychology, studying the relationship between human sexuality and speech development, speech patterns, semantics, pragmatics and communicative style or register. Let's look at what some of these terms mean.
Semantics and pragmatics
Using language that 'fits' a particular situation is integral to effective communication. Our words need to be right, our body language, demeanour and behaviour need to be appropriate, and the way we speak - our "register", or communicative style - should reflect our own status and the status of the person we are talking to.
The ability to achieve this balance has much to do with our grasp of the semantics and pragmatics of the language, or languages we speak, and the social situations we encounter.
Most of us have an unerring sense of when and how to make what we say sound pleased, respectful, jocular, confidential, sympathetic, hurt, flippant, angry, sad, dissatisfied, mystified, affectionate, incredulous, amused, sceptical or romantic.
We know how to adjust the intensity of what we say to suit the communicative environment; to comment softly to our neighbour during a play (avoiding the hostile "Shhh!" from the darkness ahead); to raise our voices to just the right level against the background noise on an aeroplane; and to shout our jubilation to each other when a favoured athlete succeeds.
The particular semantic and pragmatic adjustments we make are largely culturally and linguistically determined. Verbal and non verbal behaviour that is regarded as acceptable in a certain situation in one culture and / or language may be unacceptable in another.
Code switching is a term used in linguistics that relates to the adjustments people make to the way they speak when they are moving from one language or language style to another. For example, code switching is present when a person moves from speaking English to speaking Thai, or from speaking Standard American English to African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Sometimes the term "code" is used, and sometimes "register" or "speech style".
People who speak more than one language fluently become extremely proficient in code switching or 'language alternation' - that amazing ability bilingual or multilingual people have to flip from one language to another, adjusting much more than simply the words they utter.
Code switching can include 'code mixing' - saying part of an utterance in one language, register or style, and part in another, or combining the grammatical conventions of one language or style with the words of another.
For example, Australian aboriginal children may switch between "talking flash" (using Standard Australian English) and "talking language" (speaking an Aboriginal language or creole) and speaking Aboriginal English, often mixing the four registers. Code mixing is often a vehicle for humour, as in situations when a 'posh' character utters an uncouth, out of character expression in a 'posh voice', or vice versa.
Gay speech and lisping
At first blush, the 'gay sound' of many, but certainly not all, gay men, seems to the casual listener to be due to the way they produce the sounds /s/ and /z/. They have what many people regard as a 'characteristic' lisp. This may involve:
- a 'hyperarticulated' (very precise) /s/ and /z/, or
- a very sibilant /s/ and /z/ , or
- a dentalized /s/ and /z/ with the tongue touching the teeth, or
- an interdental /s/ and /z/ with the tongue protruding between the teeth, or
- a 'lingering s/z' in which the sound is prolonged slightly for effect (sso sspecial, amazzzing), or
- combinations of the previous five.
Sometimes the sounds 'sh' as is shake, and 'zh' as in measure, are dentalized in addition to, or instead of, /s/ and /z/.
But there is more to 'sounding gay' than simply talking with a lisp. The language that may be used (e.g., 'You go girl!'), the intonation, tone and body language and even the appearance of the speaker and the communicative environment all contribute to what the listener perceives as 'sounding gay'. The characteristics of gay speech and associated behaviour may include some or all of the following.
- precise articulation
- prolonging /s/ and /z/ subtly
- prolonging /l/ subtly
- emphasised final stop consonants
- emphasised final stop consonants with breathy, or aspirated 'seductive' production
- lisping or other alterations to /s/ and /z/
- using upward (more flamboyant) inflections
- prolonging vowels e.g., 'Soo gooorgeous'
- prolonging consonants e.g., 'Ffffabulous'
- pursing the lips when initiating a word
- pursing the lips and shaking the head emphatically from side to side when initiating a word
- saying mmm before a word e.g., 'mmm-yes', 'mmm-no', 'mmm-nice', 'mmm-lush'
- using a higher voice pitch
- going for a 'feminine' sound, or a 'gay' sound
- using soft articulatory contacts at the beginnings of words, and 'breathing through' the sounds
- using vocabulary or particular expressions identified as 'gay', e.g., 'It’s so festive.'
- adopting a high camp demeanour
Why code switch?
Many gay men are effectively bilingual, and can elect whether to sound gay or straight, depending where they are or who they are with.
Just as an African-American individual may switch from Ebonics to standard English, or the other way around, gay people can switch from 'straight' to 'gay'. This is an example of code-switching (see above).
Some gay men code-mix, sounding 'a little bit gay' (possibly sending an ambiguous message) sometimes, and 'very gay', if I can use that expression (usually sending an unambiguous message), at others.
There are a number of theories and suggestions as to why this code switching occurs, including:
- code switching is used to protect sexuality (in a new, unknown, unsafe or hostile environment)
- code switching is used to project sexuality (in a familiar, accepting or comfortable environment)
- code switching from standard production to 'gay' production is used as an indication of pride, a sense of community, unity, and solidarity
- code switching is used as a political statement
- code switching is used as a 'protection' from, or barrier to, heterosexual 'advances'
Some gay men report code switching to gay production only when they are in the company of other gay men. Indeed, some say that their parents, employers and workmates, for example, have never heard them 'talk gay'.
When does code switching start?
The question of the age at which gay individuals who code switch (from straight to gay and gay to straight) start to do so remains unanswered in the peer reviewed literature.
The Gay Speech Web Survey, one of the first web based projects of its kind, explored code switching. The authors were two graduate students Todd Fixx and William Galey, with David Ratusnik from the University of Central Florida. They presented the results of the survey as a poster session at ASHA in San Francisco (in 1999).
Code switching in young children
We do know that code switching in general starts very young. Little children will adapt their communicative style, or 'code switch' when they talk to babies or to children whom they perceive to be 'younger'. They learn at a very young age how to sound like a parent as they tuck a baby doll into bed. Even three year olds will talk in a more 'grown up' way to their peers than they do when they talk to younger children and babies.
Typically developing children will code switch and 'talk down' to children that they perceive to be developmentally delayed. The also talk in a special way to pets, and code switch constantly when they provide voices for the characters in their imaginary games.
Lisping in young children
Prior to four and a half (at least) lisping is age appropriate. Substituting 'th' for /s/ and /z/ or producing dentalized variants of /s/ and /z/ is a normal part of growing up for many little boys and girls. That is why SLPs/SLTs do not treat them for lisping before they are four and a half. By four and a half most lisps disappear spontaneously as a natural consequence of development.
Speech and sexual orientation
The question, 'do little boys who lisp, who grow up to be gay, seem gay, when they are little?' arises constantly in the correspondence I receive from academics. They ask whether there any give-away signs in the behaviour of boys who lisp that might lead the SLPs treating them to think that they might grow up to identify as gay?
For example, a prominent behavioural scientist wrote:
"I am studying sexual orientation and speech patterns, and I am wondering whether you have any impression of the boys you've seen for speech therapy for lisping. Do you believe that there is a higher rate of femininity than among other boys? My research has shown that there is a recognizable form of gay speech. Anecdotally, several gay friends told me that they were in speech therapy for lisping as children."
His letter touches on a number of key issues, explored here from the point of view of a linguistics researcher, speech-language pathologist, and communication specialist who is in no way expert in the academic areas concerned with human sexuality and sexual orientation.
"In therapy" for childhood lisping
Let's take the last point first, regarding gay men having had speech therapy as children.
Reports of gay men being treated for childhood lisping might be explained in statistical terms. There is a very high prevalence of speech and language disorders. Something like 1/7 individuals! Ten percent of children entering the first grade in the United States have moderate to severe speech disorders, including speech sound disorders and stuttering. Children with lisps (only) are considered to have mild speech sound disorders (or even no speech disorder at all) and would be surplus to the 10%.
Me talk pretty one day
My correspondent introduced me to David Sedaris' autobiographical memoir of being plucked from his classroom, like other boys in the FUTURE HOMOSEXUALS OF AMERICA (his words and caps!) category, to have his lisp expunged by a state certified speech therapist.
"None of the therapy students were girls. They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains." Me Talk Pretty One Day excerpt
Described by New York Magazine as playwright, author, radio star, and retired elf, Sedaris writes about the fifth-grade experience of homosexual boys forced to conceal their sexuality at school.
"We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues. At the beginning of the school year, while we were congratulating ourselves on successfully passing for normal, Agent Samson [the speech therapist] was taking names as our assembled teachers raised their hands, saying, "I've got one in my homeroom," and "There are two in my fourth-period math class." Were they also able to spot the future drunks and depressives? Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage and choral careers?" Me Talk Pretty One Day
Sedaris' experience of speech therapy for a lisp is from the perspective of a ten or eleven year old boy already aware of his preference for same sex partners.
I come to the topic from quite a different perspective. My direct clinical experience of assessing and treating children who lisp is almost exclusively with four-and-a-half to six year olds.
Femininity and lisping boys
The question, Do you believe that there is a higher rate of femininity than among other boys? was easy for me to answer in relation to my own caseload.
Among the hundreds of children under seven I have treated for lisping the breakdown has been about 40% girls and 60% boys. There was not a higher rate of femininity among the boys who lisped than among other boys.
However, among both the boys and the girls, there was quite a high incidence of 'babyishness' and 'immaturity', with many of the the children behaving 'young' for their ages.
Some charmed their 'audiences' with cute 'baby ways', and some infuriated or worryied their parents with behaviour ranging from refusing to give up their pacifiers, 'unreasonable' separation anxiety, and continuing to have two-year-old tantrums, to thumb sucking, baby-talking on purpose and drinking from baby bottles.
As part of these various pattern of immaturity both boys and girls tended to be very clingy with their mothers and fathers.
A significant proportion of boys and girls between 4;6 and 6;0 who lisp have first degree family members who also lisp: mothers, fathers, and siblings.
Older boys who lisp
Treating boys older than 6 who lisp is something I have done very rarely. It would be interesting to hear from SLP/SLT colleagues who are experienced in treating older boys who lisp. How would they answer the question:
Do you believe that there is a higher rate of femininity [among boys who are in therapy for lisping] than among other boys?
Is lisping feminine?
The question suggests that there is a higher rate of femininity among boys who identify, or who later identify, as gay than there is among other boys. Thinking about this, I wondered whether SLPs/SLTs and the general population regard lisping as a 'feminine' trait. Personally, I have been around so many lisping males of all ages (including fathers and sons) for so long that I find it very difficult to think of it as a feminine characteristic.
For about 27 years I practiced in the same location, in Sydney, Australia, drawing on the same geographical area for about 70% of my caseload. Many families and clients stayed in touch with me long after discharge from therapy.
Consequently, I know a number of young men who saw me regarding their lisps when they were children, who now identify as gay. In every case their lisps were successfully treated.
In NONE of these cases was there anything to cause me to think of these young boys as being 'potentially gay'.
As adults, some of these ex-clients maintain normal production of /s/ and /z/; some have lisps with no other 'gay speech' characteristics; some code switch; and some project a high camp demeanour all the time.
The code switchers' behaviour warrants a brief comment. Contrary to what might be expected, they 'talk gay' very easily in my company. I find this interesting as one might expect them to try hard NOT to lisp in the sense that they know I am interested in speech and that I am probably attending to the MANNER of their speech as well as the matter, and in the sense that they might be sensitive to the idea that I might be disappointed that their lisps had 'regressed' (given our shared history). But thankfully, no, they don't go overboard trying to talk 'straight' for their old SLP. They are are comfortable being themselves.
GLBTQ - gayspeak
J Michael Bailey[controversy]
Mind Your Language
Polari: Chris Denning
Polari: Paul Baker
Signs linked to sexuality
Sounding Gay - Joe Clark
The Subtler Forms of Homophobia
With downcast gays
Pierrehumbert, J.B., Bent, T., Munson, B., Bradlow, A.R., & Bailey, J.M. (2004). The influence of sexual orientation on vowel production. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 116, 1905-1908.
Munson, B., McDonald, E. C., De Boe, N. L., & White, A. R. (2005). The Acoustic and Perceptual Bases of Judgements of Women and Men's Sexual Orientation from Read Speech. Journal of Phonetics.
Rogers,H., Jacobs, G., & Smyth, R. (2001). Searching for Phonetic Correlates of Gay- and Straight-Sounding Voices. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics, 18, 46-64.