The geek voice?

Arne Adolfsen recently reported on Facebook that he’d been hearing the hit television show The Big Bang Theory. (Yes, hearing, not listening to, and certainly not watching. The show goes on in a room next to the one he’s in. He avoids it, because he hates the very obtrusive laugh track, an antipathy I sympathize with.) He’s formed the opinion that all of the male characters are gay, because of the way they talk [because of the phonetics of their talk. which is all he has to go on — see comments]. (Possibly relevant fact: Arne is gay.) Yet they’re all presented as straight — and awkwardly pursuing women — and the actors playing them all seem to be straight in real life [which is to say: there’s an apparent disjunction between orientation as perceived from phonetics and orientation as presented in the story — again, see comments]. Where does Arne’s impression come from?

About the show (from the Wikipedia page):

The Big Bang Theory is an American sitcom created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady… It premiered on CBS on September 24, 2007.

The show is centered on five characters: Roommates Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, two physicists who work at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech); Penny, a blonde waitress and aspiring actress who lives across the hall; and Leonard and Sheldon’s equally geeky and socially awkward friends and co-workers aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali. The geekiness and intellect of the four guys is contrasted for comic effect with Penny’s social skills and common sense.

You can watch episodes on the show’s website, here.

The male characters certainly aren’t performing High Masculinity. Instead, they’re behaving (and talking) like geekily enthusiastic (and socially unsure) adolescents. That’s their charm, but this presentation of self doesn’t win them any masculinity points. As far as I can tell from some watching, they don’t exhibit the phonetic characteristics most closely, though very imperfectly, associated with gayness in men, but nevertheless the “geek voice” is liable to be associated with the “gay voice” just because it’s not stereotypically masculine.

It seems that the gay voice hasn’t been discussed on Language Log or, except in one brief posting, “Lisping in the elevator”, on this blog. There’s now quite a considerable literature on the topic. Here are some relevant points from the handout for a 2003 talk I gave at Cornell, “Sounding gay”:

1. The basic observation: Lots of gay men seem to give off no signals in their speech; they don’t “sound gay”. But lots of men do sound gay, and people turn out to be pretty good at picking them out.

2. What are listeners hearing? [quite a few possibilities, not all of which have panned out in phonetic studies]

3. The Femininity Connection. What counts as “femininine”?

  • Failure to achieve signs of very conventional, “marked”, masculinity (ball-throwing);
  • Location on a continuum away from the conventionally masculine end (rough play vs. imaginative play, disregard vs. nurturing).

4.  Are obvious gay men yearning for femininity?  (Bailey)  Or deviating from conventional masculinity?  (Zwicky)  Or doing something else?  Some researchers think that what these men are doing is not so much sounding gay as sounding flamboyant; they’re presenting themselves as a certain kind of person — involved, intense, playful — rather than sending out generic gaydar signals. In line with this, some men vary the signals from occasion to occasion. (Podesva)

cf: Cameron (1995:49): “ ‘Feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are not what we ARE, nor traits we HAVE, but effects we produce by way of particular things we DO.”

5.  The double reverse: Belief Trumps Truth. Even if some behavior actually isn’t associated with women, if people believe it is, then it is. (Cf. race.) So things that people believe are associated with women can index gay men too, if you believe that gay men are “feminine”.

And things that people believe are associated with gay men can then cause geeky guys to be identified as gay.

There’s more on the handout, including the references, and there’s been a good bit of research since I gave this talk. But this is a start.

Meanwhile, I can hope that someone will do a research project in phonetics on sounding geeky — on real-life geeks (goodness knows there are plenty around me here in Silicon Valley) or on the BBT characters.

18 Responses to “The geek voice?”

  1. Arne Adolfsen Says:

    I formed my conclusion that all the characters were gay (and that there might possibly only be two male characters) solely from hearing the show too many times to count from the next room. I never tried to listen to get a sense of what they were talking about and all that ever really registered was one character’s name (Leonard), some talk about rare comic books, and words like “penis” and “vagina” and “sexual intercourse” that were immediately followed by a burst of fortissimo laugh-track “laughter”. I certainly wasn’t responding to the content of what they were talking about or what the relationships of the characters might be, at least not consciously. It was really just the general contours of their speech that struck me as gay. Who knows: while the name “Leonard” and comic book collections don’t strike me as particularly gay, maybe talk about sex using clinical terms that is meant to be hilarious automatically does signal “flaming queen!” to me. It’s a possibility.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You say: “It was really just the general contours of their speech that struck me as gay.”

      I’m sorry that it wasn’t clear that this was exactly what I was saying with “because of the way they talk” — which is why the focus of the posting was about phonetics. I will amend the posting to make this stunningly clear.

  2. vocalised Says:

    And of course there’s this: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=567959F6F0F77537B747924F7164A16F.journals?fromPage=online&aid=28557 which, although focusing on the girls, does talk a bit about the geeky guys, too.

    Note that there’s lots of popular discussion online about Sheldon’s sexuality (specifically), e.g., http://insidetv.ew.com/2010/02/09/big-bang-theory-sheldon-gay/

  3. Nathan Sanders Says:

    “the actors playing them all seem to be straight in real life”

    It’s an open secret that Emmy-winning Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon, is gay. As far as I know, he hasn’t officially confirmed his sexuality, but the circumstantial evidence (e.g., condo purchase with the same guy he’s been seen frequenting Hollywood events with for years) all strongly point to him being gay.

  4. thesociallinguist Says:

    Interestingly, the show does explore ‘latent homosexuality’ between Raj and Howard, and there are a number of points in the show where the audience is led to believe that the two have feelings for one another (beyond homosociality). The two characters vigorously deny this and in one episode, Raj comments on more than one occasion ‘I’m definitely not gay’. This is primarily predicated on the fact that he’s attracted to women, which I suppose demonstrates quite a superficial picture of sexuality in the show (although when does Chuck Lorre ever deal with issues in any depth?).

    Work by Ben Munson and Erez Levon shows quite nicely how stereotypically gay voices are also rated as less masculine by listeners, and I don’t think that it’s a surprise that other versions of non-heteronormative/non-hegemonic masculinities are ‘tarred with the same brush’ as it were.

    Lastly, your point that ‘Instead, [the characters are] behaving (and talking) like geekily enthusiastic (and socially unsure) adolescents.’ But I’m wondering why you don’t use ‘masculine’ here? Are we working within a relatively narrow definition of the word? They’re performing a certain type of masculinity, but one which could be considered ‘deviant’ (although I’m uncomfortable with the label ‘deviant’).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “But I’m wondering why you don’t use ‘masculine’ here? Are we working within a relatively narrow definition of the word?…”

      My previous sentence referred to “High Masculinity”, an explicit bow to a stereotype rather than reality. Of course, in the real world there are many styles of masculinity.

  5. Stephanie Smith Says:

    Sheldon is presented as pathologically asexual. Oddly, I didn’t read the character as gay — I read the actor portraying the character, Jim Parsons, as gay (which, as it turns out, he is).

  6. Starr Says:

    What’s also interesting about Sheldon/Jim Parsons, aside from Parsons being gay, is that he’s got a strong Southern accent for a geeky character (Parsons is from Texas). All of the geeks I know from the south, and in particular from Texas, have avoided acquiring Southern features. I think Parsons tries to tone down his Texas accent when playing Sheldon, but it’s still quite prominent. Anyway, comparing Parsons’ “real” voice with his Sheldon voice is pretty interesting — one of the more noticeable things he does is reduce his intonation range.

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Bob Moore on Google+:

    As an almost card-carrying geek (OK, I own a “nerd pride” pocket protector, but I have only worn it a few times), I don’t think the “geek voices” on The Big Bang Theory bear much relation to reality. Over the last 40 years studying and working in the MIT AI Lab, Stanford AI Lab, SRI AI Center, NASA Ames Research Center, Microsoft Research, and now Google Research, the vast majority of geeks I have known have perfectly normal voices in terms of phonetics and prosody. (Vocabulary and syntax are another question, but irrelevant to how the voice sounds.)

    There is, however, a distinctive “geek voice” that is very rare (probably less than 1% of geeks I have known have it) but it is not like the “Big Bang Theory” voices, and not at all confusable with a “gay” voice. It is hard for me to characterize, but part of it seems to be a slow rate of speech and hypercorrect pronunciation. A wild guess would be that it has something to do with Aspergers Syndrome.

    Maybe so, but there might be a subclass of geeks whose voices (and other behaviors) served as models for the BBT characters.

    • John Dorrance Says:

      Bob’s description reminds me of the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons – not in regards to slow speech, but in regards to the exaggerated pronunciation.

  8. codeman38 Says:

    This Usenet post from back in 1999, on the topic of “fannish accents” (i.e., among fans of science fiction and fantasy), based on a SF/F con panel by speech therapist Karyn Ashburn, somewhat touches on the topic of geek phonetics:

    http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.fandom/browse_thread/thread/abce2788b27509eb/1e5a957c26a3ce37?tvc=2&pli=1

  9. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words Says:

    […] considered the word fanny, “an area ripe for trans-Atlantic misunderstanding and offense,” and the geek voice. Sesquiotica examined spoffle (as coined by actor Hugh Laurie); scattermalia, “little details […]

  10. Jenny Says:

    In 1997, I was with some friends – we all attended a “geek” school together – talking about tabloids while we waited to check out at a store. The woman next to us in line guessed which school we attended because her husband “had the same accent.” Until then, we didn’t know we had a school accent. American schools don’t, usually. The geek accent in Big Bang Theory is more exaggerated and doesn’t sound quite authentic to me.

  11. Patrick Callier (@dimjaguar) Says:

    Lal Zimman had a 2009 NWAV talk comparing gay men, self-identified nerds, and trans men—“Perceived sexual orientation and gender normativity: What do gay men, nerds, and
    female-to-male transsexuals have in common?” NWAV 38. University of Ottawa, October 24.

    IIRC, all three groups got rated as “gay-sounding”?

  12. Geek days « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] to the geek voice, which I posted about in January. But first some notes on labels like “geek voice” and “gay […]

  13. SpyOne Says:

    “the actors playing them all seem to be straight in real life ”
    Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, is gay, and has never tried to hide it. His long time partner often accompanied him to events.
    It does appear, though, that the first time it came up in an interview was in may 2012, about 5 months after this was written.
    Still, when it came up, it wasn’t like “Are you gay?” but more like “Since you’re gay, ….” like the reporter already knew and assumed everyone else did.

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