a {text-decoration: none; } En la punta de la lengua: A contrastive analysis of gay and straight linguistic features

6 may. 2013

A contrastive analysis of gay and straight linguistic features

Méndez, L. A. (2013). A contrastive analysis of gay and straight linguistic features. Unpublished Manuscript, Languages Department, Universidad de las Américas Puebla, Cholula, Mexico. Retrieved from http://www.enlapuntadelalengua.com.mx/2013/05/a-contrastive-analysis-of-gay-and.html


Every group of individuals with common ends that has passed by this realm has been completely convinced that their way of doing things is the right one. Nonetheless, is hard to refute that over the past decades the world has gone through extremely significant changes concerning social structure, in comparison to past centuries. Likewise, it would be difficult for past generations to picture a world in which their “hot topics” are gradually becoming part of ordinary life. But even for this generation, many of these recent changes have been shocking and unexpected. 

Using the United States as example, it is every time more noticeable how social issues associated with minorities that were previously avoided or concealed by the mainstream, are gaining importance within social reality. Discriminative policies such as the Army’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has been disabled. 10 states now recognize same-sex marriage. There are openly gay politicians and journalists. TV shows are inculcating tolerance to children and adolescents,and even the President supports gay marriage.

Although society as a whole is opening gradually in several directions to accept diversity as part of human nature; oppositely to what most educated people and new generations may believe, there are still many taboos, misconceptions and unsolved doubts flattering around the notion of homosexuality. One of the most prevalent erroneous supposition is that homosexuality is a new phenomenon that was discovered overnight. As a matter of fact if we wanted to track down the history of men and also women having sexual intercourse and romantic relationships with their same biological sex, we could go as far as Ancient Greece where homosexual behavior was not just condoned but associated with a higher social, spiritual and moral values. Or the Aztec Empire that before the Spaniards and Christianity, did not considered sodomy as a “filthy unnatural sin”(Fone, 2000); Secondly, and most important in order to regard homosexuality as a subfield of gender studies, is that homosexuality is not a mental disorder much less an illness. As it was already scientifically acknowledged when in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association disregarded it as such, followed by the American Psychological Association in 1975 (Bayer, 1987) and finally by the World Health Organization in 1990.

Before this major milestone was accomplished in the United States, although almost 30 years later than in Northern European countries, most of the research focusing on homosexual matters was either disregarded as academically serious or simply precluded because it was not valuable for science and there might not be so many people interested on reading it. However, since a couple a decades ago, many fields such as: sociology, biology and anthropology to name a few, have become interested on the inquiry of Queer Studies. Most research has been focused on finding the resolution to the never-ending dispute of homosexuality being caused by nature or nurture, but there are also other inquiries that have focused on answering different questions.

Among linguistics sub-disciplines, there is a field that not so many years ago started to become interested on the use of language among the LGTB community, developing a new study field known as Lavender Linguistics or Queer Linguistics, having William Leap as its pioneer with his work Beyond Lavender Lexicon in 1995. Before Leap, only studies regarding word-choice  had been carried out. Today, the panorama is not so different, since  lists of words, terminology and etymologies continue to be the most reviewed areas of this field (Kulick, 2000). However, with the introduction to “gay phonetics” it seems that there might be more to Queer Linguistics than just long lists of argot used among the LGTB community to 
convey membership.

The aforementioned introduction to this controversial branch of linguistics, subjectively proposes that gay lisp, described as a high frequency production of sibilant consonants or a hyper-correct /s/ is a stereotypical feature among many English-speaking gay males. Furthermore, an interesting fact about this study carried out by Munson et al. (2006) is that a similar study was performed in Puerto Rico, concluding that this lisp was also usual and stereotypical among numerous Spanish-speaking gay men (Mack, 2010). Based upon the previous research on sound-production and word-choice, it could be then considered that homosexual men have a specific style that differs from their straight counterparts. But why?

An individual, as part of a specific speech community acquires a sociolinguistic canons through which is normally not hard to infer someone else's origin, social class, native language, education level and of course, gender understood as an ongoing discursive practice open to intervention and resignation (Leap, 2008), associated to certain extent to biological sex. Yet, how hard do you think it would be to hypothesize someone’s sexual orientation based upon merely on his discursive features; or in other words, on the someone speaks.

Most people out there would not hesitate to answer that the cue to determine weather a guy is gay or straight, could be inferred by an effeminate speech style. So, it is exactly this unfounded assumption that fires the inquiries to find out how homogeneous are the linguistic features performed by homosexual men in order to determine how valid these common assumptions are. As Munson (2007) points out, if LGTB speech styles were indeed globally sex-opposite ways of speaking, then they could be acquired by simply emulating opposite-sex models in the ambient language. Nonetheless, in many occasions this kind of linguistic behavior appears since early childhood probably due to the fact that the child identifies himself more with the mother’s than with the father’s gender; without leaving behind that genetic predisposition may play an important role as well.

It is a given that children speak differently than adults due to the fact that their language development is not complete yet. Many children start displaying linguistic features that are different than other children of the same age. This contrast is normally assumed to be caused because of an absent father or an overbearing mother. However, this cannot be a hundred percent proven since there are many cases that notwithstanding the presence of both parents, the child presents a stereotypically gay speech. This gender-atypical behavior causes the child to be at risk for more negative social consequences than kids with gender-typical behavior. It has also been hypothesized that language development in gender-non- conforming boys is faster than in average boys. In a study done by Munson & Crocker (2006) it was found that gender-non-conforming boys were found to sound older than their chronologically age-matched gender conforming counterparts, because of lexical differences and sentence construction complexity, which continues later in life with the theory that male gay adults are also rated as speaking more clearly than heterosexual adult. Therefore, it could be assumed that language development in gender-nonconforming boys is similar to female language development, making them more conscious of the use of language. But again, even though there are certain factors that could be attached to individual biological nature, there are some other aspects that are clearly shaped by the world they grow up in.

On our daily basis we are beholden to specify which gender we belong to; from specifying our gender or sex on an application form, to materialize it through our physical appearance, behavior, body language, and of course discourse. Gender, according to Cameron (2011) is a a repeated stylization of the body and a set of repeated acts within a rigid regulatory frame which is concealed over time to produce the appearance of substance of a natural kind. That is to say, if you had not been born where you were, chances are you will not be who you are right now. So, in contrast to biological sex being the physical features that we are definitely born with and falls within one of the two dichotomies of male or female, gender is an ongoing set of treats that we acquire throughout our development as social beings and can always be changed. We are aware that today’s world is socially ruled by the media and is not hard to see how gender as it was known to our grand-parents is being modified by extrinsic factors that are constantly put in front of us, such as: fashion, movies, television, and pop culture. Through this means and basically trough everyday interaction we learn what is OK to wear and say, how is OK to behave and even what kind of music it is OK to listen.

Furthermore, we learn to reproduce ways of speaking that are “appropriate” to our sex; and although most people have no problem adjusting to these social requirements, the questions arises with those who could not or decided not to fall within heteronormativity. It is well known that there are substantial differences when comparing the way men and women talk. Women tend to use speech more cooperatively, while men use it to compete and convey power. On the one hand we have men talking about sports, alcohol, women and paradoxically about other men bodies or appearance in order to reinforce their heterosexuality and on the other hand, women talking about fashion, love, men and gossips. Therefore, it is not hard to wonder why so many alternative or unknown practices within social reality are marginalized since human beings learn since childhood to avoid what is different from their immediate schema. To illustrate how deeply within the human mind is social sensitiveness, we can analyze an example presented by Kiesling (2002) involving a party where “a straight couple decided to fuck on the floor” this for most young adults will be rated as awesome because there was an unexpected event that despite the fact of being  regarded as normal, is completely out of the context. The most feasible reaction after this episode would be that the guy would be glorified while the girl would be tagged as a slut displaying a clear example of hegemonic masculinity. However, if we change the straight couple for two guys who randomly decided to have sex in front of everyone, it is very likely that people will freak out and someone will go to stop them. So, if we put this in a hierarchical order it’s easily noticeable that even when women are marginalized by men, homosexual men and overall effeminate homosexuals men are at the bottom of the pyramid. This short but truthful explanation of social reality can help to understand why males use female terms as a derogative to other male in general to subordinate them, why in cultures with a high prevalence of sexism such as Mexico, masculine words as padre conveys a positive meaning while madre is commonly used to insult, and why men interrupt women when they're talking and women tend to be more polite and to use more hedges and boosters in discourse (Holmes, 2005), which makes evident that our manifestation of gender, identity  and pretty much everything a person is, happens through language itself.

Talking about a gay identity would be as hard as talking about a sole personality for the billions of people who inhabit the world. We are the sum of all the previous experiences we have been through and based on these experiences is how we can project who we are. Therefore, we can assume once again that generalization are not always the best way to go ; though it would be hypocrite to say that the first assumption that comes in your mind when listening someone with a gender-switched discursive style is not that that person might be gay, although that is not always true and vice versa, since identity constructions of heterosexuality and homosexuality do not necessarily have to be different in all contexts. As it was mentioned before, many have argued that boys talking like girls occurs when there is not strong male image that will instruct them the “right” way to behave sociolinguistically speaking, but since the causes of homosexuality are physical, mental, congenital, acquired, hereditary and environmental (Kahn, 1937) I guess the answer is simple, Straight-acting gays might argue that although they discovered probably later in life their attraction for the same sex, they never felt identified with feminine performances and they were just guys who happen to like other guys. On the other hand, effeminate gay men might say that they speak and behave like they do, because that is who they have always feel they are since childhood when many also discovered their attraction to the same sex. And in between this two opposite faces of homosexuality, many other blends are possible, as proposed by Kinsey (1975) with his Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale where he found that around 37% of men have had or will have a homosexual experience between adolescence and late adulthood. Nowadays the rating scale has been adapted to differentiate sex and gender.

As in other minorities, gay slang and other features could also be regarded as a socio- indexical way to show pride and inclusion within a group that have been through similar experiences and as a way of putting oneself out there, in order to facilitate the search of a companion. However, due to the aforementioned heteronormativity in which we all grew up, not all gay men are willing to engage themselves on this discursive practices or lifestyles because they do not consider it as part of their personal identity. As stated by Motschebacher (2011) heterosexuality is often constructed by means of explicit stigmatization of non-heterosexual identities, due to the fact that heterosexuality is not seen as an identity but rather as the norm, contrary to homosexuality.

Hence, this same construction of heternormativity also exists as something that could be described as a heterosexual homosexuality within the LGTB community. It is exactly at this point that things start to become more complex, finding that there are many gay identities. Some gay men understand the word gay as being part of the milieu of glamour, effeminacy and other stereotypical practices of mainstream homosexual men. However, the other side of the coin, or the ones who have bravely decided to go against the flow without caring much what society might say, falling at the same time within the general stereotype of a gay man, are the ones who represent the minority within the minority and the most likely to use the gender non-normative linguistic features hypothesized for this research.


During the preliminary phase of the present article, it was conceived that the best way to carry out a research on discursive contrasts among homosexual and heterosexual men, would be through collecting actual recordings of students in a Mexican private university, who were willing to contribute to this research and of course, who did not have a problem telling which their sexual orientation was. However, after the data collection was piloted by asking people about their views on gay marriage and their sexual orientation, it was found that most students were hesitant answering the second request and many would not agree to be recorded for the ends of this investigation. Mexico as most Latin Americans countries is still struggling to socially disregard homosexuality as a taboo or a matter to be ashamed of. Therefore, it is not surprising that although homophobia is not that much of an issue among the majority of today's generation,  many people are still not confortable enough to openly share their sexual orientation.

Despite gay marriage has been legally accepted at least in Mexico City since 2009, which will normally mean that the greatest part of the social tissue is in accordance with the LGTB community. I have to agree with Taylor (1986) that until this day, it is still considered as something that is better to keep only to oneself, since the Mexican system keeps homosexuals centered in their identity as citizens and humans, preventing them from becoming isolated from the mainstream life. In other words, and notwithstanding the fact that in the upper-level class a homosexual person will not be bullied or attacked, but most likely integrated. Homosexuality it is not yet regarded as openly as in other societies.

Thus, once it was noticed that the first data collection procedure would not work as it was planned, the second best option was the innovative self-broadcasting world available on the World Wide Web. Youtube has become during the past years a huge media phenomenon that together with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, keep the world continuously informed of countless ongoing events everywhere. For this reason, these interconnected domains are every time more loaded with tons of information, that I personally believe can become great research tools. One peculiarity that has aroused during the expansion of Youtube is the birth of a new kind of expression portals where people from all over the world have the opportunity to upload videos of themselves talking about a
myriad of topics. 

Considering then the thousands of video bloggers out there who use the Internet as a window to express to the world what they think and how they feel without acting much upon it, the observer’s paradox diminishes, since most of this video blogs take place normally at comfort places. I believe that using Youtube as researching field will also allow me to have a bigger sample, due to the hundreds of bloggers who have uploaded their opinions, comments and concerns regarding LGTB issues such as: homosexual marriage, coming out stories and homophobia to name a few.

Besides the central assumption that there is in fact a discursive difference between the way gay and straight men express themselves and which linguistic features in general demonstrate so; there are as well three other questions that I would try to solve (1) is it only an imitation of female discursive style? (2) Are there certain features that could not be placed in any gender dichotomy? (3) Why would men try to consciously acquire/imitate an effeminate style when knowing that in many instances it is not socially accepted?

As a way of  collecting data I will be examining two sets of samples. The first set will be formed by 20 videos of heterosexual bloggers and the second by 20 videos of homosexual bloggers. Therefore this research will be done based upon descriptive and explanatory methodology since its main objective is to analyze, inform and explain the contrasting linguistic features in spoken discourse among heterosexual and homosexual men, who speak English as their native language.

The research will have a quasi-experimental design since the study samples were not arbitrarily chosen, but instead they were selected to fall within one of the two dichotomies. Concerning the measuring instrument to analyze the data gathered, I will classify the most important contrasting differences in matter oh phonetics, lexicon, syntax and facial gestures

I am quite aware that there might not be anything too deep to get out of gay language, since as McCormick (2003) mentions, the study of discourse among homosexuals has had no impact because researchers have failed to come up with any structural or morphological cues and until a couple of years ago, with phonological features.


When it comes to compare and analyze that way people speak there are many aspects that might seem subjective due to the fact that us as individuals tend to attach extrinsic and even exaggerated connotations to what people actually meant, and since there is no book or manual that can exactly teach you what others really tried to communicate, that is the reason why sometimes it becomes so difficult to understand each other despite the fact of having the same linguistic code. As if that were not enough, based on our previous experiences as member of a speech community, we acquire a specific set of paradigms to help us hypothesize others people linguistic behavior and therefore every individual regardless culture, gender, or social class, develops different ways to interpret information, and of course what someone meant or tried to communicate (implicature) and what the listener thinks the speaker meant (presupposition). Therefore, if we only consider one person’s point of view, the research would become purely qualitative and although this type of research has validity to some extent, is always better to throw some cold hard numbers that will add more exactitude to the results. Thus, while analyzing the sample there were many discursive factors that were clearly different between both groups but also between speakers of the same group. Therefore, in order to carry out an accurate analysis, the features that were mainly considered as research data were those that quantitatively prevailed between the discourses of homosexual and heterosexual men.

As many of you might have already guessed, one of the major contrasts between the groups occurred within the fields of phonetics and acoustics. Without trying to reinforce the already spread out stereotype of gay men having a high pitched voice, it was noticed that the gay group had a less deep and more modulated voice than heterosexual men; however, for most cases it could not be classified as an effeminate tone, but more like a boyish one. Furthermore, the straight group tended to talk more rapidly than the gay group who had more pauses and generally a better prosody. Therefore, this features together with a more standard accent and a careful pronunciation of the message, contributed to make the gay men speech more clear and understandable than its counterpart. It is not a bombshell that gay men showed a better control of language since as matter of fact not so long ago Swedish scientist discovered than unlike heterosexual men and lesbians, heterosexual women and gay men have symmetrical brains with both hemispheres almost exactly the same size, which enables them to do better at certain language tasks (Savik & Lindström, 2008). It was found as well that as previously mentioned in the introduction, some samples of the gay group presented the lisp when it came to produce the sibilant /s /in a distinctive way, while none of the straight samples presented it at all. Also, a tendency that really caught my attention and that can also be easily identified within women’s speech, was that gay men used more word emphasis whenever they felt the need to highlight the core of their enunciation; nonetheless this appeared to be at the same time as kind of hedge that would work as a transition marker to allow a more coherent and less sudden switch to their next topic.

Some other premises concerning pragmatics were that the heterosexual individuals tended to use an informal register with the use of slang and contractions as imma be and ain’t, whereas the gay group used a standard register as well as a clear manifestation of politeness when introducing themselves at the beginning of their monologues, which can be traced back to the stated (Holmes, 1995)  that the less powerful group , in this case being gay men and not women, tend to use more politeness utterances as a kind of a linguistic weapon to level the power . Without a doubt there are many other factors that should be considered while regarding the pragmatic use of language; however this complex area of linguistic could require a whole book as well as deeper research in order to unmistakably expose the different practices and uses that both, heterosexual and homosexual men give to language.

Moreover, another feature that can be also found among stereotypical women language is the overall marked use of gestures and body language. Although everyone uses body language to some extent as a way to enhance and reassure the quality of a message, gay men overtook their heterosexual counterparts when it came to communicate using the body.  In general, heterosexual men were more stiff and straightforward when communicating a message, whereas gay men tend to add more emotion through movement of hands, rapid eye movement and gestures that conveyed more emotion to the enunciation.

Historically, men have always had more social freedom to perform certain behaviors that would be disapproved if done by women and vice versa. To easily illustrate, it would not be hard to picture an average guy spitting or burping in public and although this might be seen as rude anyways, most people would consider it even worse if instead of a guy, it was a girl who did it. So, connecting these so-called privileges to the spoken discourse of straight men, one of the most outstanding point of the research was the incredible higher rate of cursing used by heterosexual men in comparison to gay men. During the past decade research concerning cursing has found three important premises.

Men curse more often than women; men use a larger vocabulary of curse words than do women; and men use more offensive curse words than do women. (Jay, 2000)

It seems to me that the exaggerated use of cursing among heterosexual men, is another sociolinguistic approach to convey power and show off toughness. Although research regarding cursing has only been carried out comparing straight men and women, it was clearly noticeable how straight men cursed in order to add the emotion that gay men transmited by means of word emphasis and non-verbal language, similar to straight women. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that in order to fulfill sociocultural gender rules; straight men use cursing as way to convey emotions without displaying any different behavior that might put their masculinity under the spotlight. It should not be forgotten that we are talking of an informal setting where the heterosexual sample felt at ease to use an informal register; however, if instead we were to put the straight men in front of a podium giving a conference it is a given that they would have changed their register, but since these monologues were carried out in completely informal setting chosen by them, the statistics of bad words used by straight men as an emphasis tool clearly outnumbered the gay men with 92.4%.

When it comes to delivering a message, individuals have a different speed rate to communicate what they want to say. There are people who process and deliver rapidly their thoughts and other that will take longer and therefore talk slower. Even so, every speaker uses hedges or intentional or unintentional linguistic techniques that help within their discourse to lessen or mitigate utterances reinforcing at the same time the tenets of quantity, quality, manner, and relevance expected when communicating a message (Grundy, 2000). On this sense, apparently meaningless expression that we produce on our daily basis such as: so, then, by the way, and I was like, all I know, I think, well, etc. have the function to shape the sense and emotion of the message and give us time to think on how to structure the next message coming on. Concerning the linguistic features found mostly among homosexual men speech in comparison to the counterpart. It was noticed how cursing and other informal behaviors, were a lot less common. Nevertheless, the majority of the homosexual sample, used more hedges and fillers in their utterances, in contrast to heterosexual males. Which is also found in women’s speech, as stated by Holmes (1995)

Hedges and boosters were characteristics of women’s language expressing a lack of confidence and reflected women’s social insecurities, as well as their propensity to be more polite than men.


Despite all the major or minuscule variances that humans present in their personalities and identities to then express them using language, there are features that seems to be mainly connected to social aspects. Although there were substantial differences between the linguistic features of the two analyzed groups, there is a lot of research that needs to be done in order to determine if a person imitates his/her parent speech based on biological or social factors.


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