Geek days

Just learned that Thursday Friday is Geek Pride Day and was reminded that I should post some observations from Lal Zimman on the “geek voice”.

Geek Pride Day, from the Wikipedia page:

Geek Pride Day is an initiative to promote geek culture, celebrated on 25 May. The date was chosen as to commemorate the release of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope on 25 May 1977 (see Star Wars Day), but shares the same date as two other similar fan “holidays”: Towel Day, for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy by Douglas Adams, and the Glorious 25 May for fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

The initiative originated in Spain in 2006 as “Orgullo Friki” and spread around the world via the internet.

(That’s friki or friqui, from English freak. And orgullo ‘pride’.)

Now to the geek voice, which I posted about in January. But first some notes on labels like “geek voice” and “gay voice” (and, for that matter, “AAVE”, “Southern accent”, etc.). In each case, there is some association between linguistic features and some social group — but this association is both complex and imperfect: not everyone in the group has the features, people not in the group may have the features, the features come in clusters, with weak correlations between different features, and some of the features often belong to other clusters, associated with other social groups.

Now: in a comment on my January posting, Pat Callier noted that

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.

The nerds weren’t a major component of the paper, Lal told me in e-mai, where he said that the nerd material

tied into my general argument that gender presentation/normativity has to be considered as something separate from sexual orientation, in order to understand the full range of how and why people sound gay.

More observations (posted here with Lal’s permission):

In recording & collecting perceptual data for the 15 speakers I used in my (first) study of gay-sounding voices, I found that the two strongly-self-identified nerds occupied interesting positions in terms of their perceived sexuality. First, one of the 5 straight, non-trans men I recorded was strongly nerd-identified, and to me definitely had a nerdy-sounding voice. He received the highest gayness ratings of any of my straight speakers – this didn’t surprise me, both because of the way his voice sounded and because he told me he has been mistaken as gay on several occasions.

More surprising to me was the perception of the gay non-trans speaker who identifies as a nerd. He emphasized this identity throughout my interview with him, and to my ear could be described as gay- or nerdy-sounding. He actually had the least gay sounding voice of my gay speakers. Of course, that could just be a coincidence – perhaps he sounds less gay for reasons unrelated to his nerd identity & style. But it surprised me and made me wonder whether some listeners were perceiving him and the other nerd as gay and others were perceiving them as a straight nerds.

… Listening to http://clips right now, the gay nerdy speaker actually sounds somewhat like the actor from Big Bang Theory. Hmmmmm….

Incidentally, I had a student email me and ask me about the character Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. I think he said that he considered Sheldon to have a straight-sounding voice, while his friends perceived him as gay-sounding. When I first saw the show I remember perceiving Sheldon as nerdy-sounding and not gay-sounding, because I was very surprised when I heard an interview with the actor on NPR (without knowing who it was), and in that context he absolutely sounded gay to me. It would be fascinating to compare the voices of the actor and the character!

The broader context appears in this call for papers for a panel at the 2012 meeting of the AAA, San Francisco, November 14-18 (abstract submissions were closed in March):

Organizer: Lal Zimman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

The acoustic characteristics of the voice, though highly salient carriers of social meaning, remain to a large extent the domain of sociolinguistics rather than linguistic anthropology. By bringing anthropological concerns about literal and figurative borders together with methods and questions developed in the burgeoning field of sociophonetics (see Hay & Drager 2007), the goal of this panel is to encourage sociocultural linguists to cross, blur, and redefine the boundaries that separate qualitative and quantitative branches of our fields.  With a focus on speakers traversing social, linguistic, or spatial borders, papers are invited to showcase the ways the voice itself can enable, prohibit, (de)authenticate, (de)naturalize, or (de)legitimize border crossings (cf. Bucholtz & Hall 2005).

Sociophonetics has much to add to interdisciplinary conversations about social and/or linguistic borderlands. For instance, authors might investigate the ways that the voice carries traces of a speaker’s linguistic history as they move across locales or identities. We know that language varieties and speaking styles learned in early life often exert a systematic influence on an individual’s articulatory habits later on (e.g. Tagliamonte & Molfenter 2007). At the same time, researchers who have considered change in a speaker’s accent across the lifetime have shown that shifts in social context may be accompanied by significant shifts at the phonetic level (e.g. Harrington 2006; Sankoff & Blondeau 2007). In the context of socio-geographical movement, the voice therefore reflects not only a speaker’s origins, but also the destination at which they arrive.

From another perspective, the voice is important because of the ideological weight it often takes on and because of its status as an omnipresent feature of spoken language. In metalinguistic discourse about the voice, for example, socially meaningful phonetic variation is often naturalized (particularly in arenas like gender and race, where the pull of biological essentialism is strong). The notion that the voice represents a speaker’s “natural” linguistic self makes it a powerful resource for the negotiation of borders and movement across them.

These are only a few initial directions for this panel. Other potential topics that might be addressed include (but are not limited to):

• The voice in contexts of globalization and transnational exchange;

• The phonetics of language contact;

• How the voice enables speakers to cross the divisions between social categories (e.g. transnational and hybrid identities, transgender practices, and other transformations);

• Ideologies about voice;

• Phonetic analysis of linguistic crossing or mock languages;

• Voices in linguistic varieties with disputed borders;

• Changes in the voice through the lifetime or specific stages of life;

• Sound change in relation to social, political, or geographic borders.


Bucholtz, Mary, & Kira Hall (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7(4-5):585-614.

Harrington, Jonathan (2006). An acoustic analysis of ‘happy-tensing’ in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. Journal of Phonetics 34(4):439-457.

Hay, Jennifer & Katie Drager (2007). Sociophonetics. Annual Review of Anthropology 36:89-103.

Tagliamonte, Sali A. & Sonja Molfenter (2007). How’d you get that accent?: Acquiring a second dialect of the same language. Language in Society 36(5):649-675.

Sankoff, Gillian, & Hélène Blondeau (2007). Language change across the lifespan: /r/ in Montreal French. Language 83(3):560-588.

4 Responses to “Geek days”

  1. Jenny Says:

    I’ve got my towel ready, and I’ll be wearing the lilac (and donating to Alzheimer’s research), but May 25 falls on a Friday this year, not Thursday. I hadn’t heard of it called Geek Pride day until now, and I’m not sure I’ll stop calling it Towel Day in favor of this new name.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Breaking (but not surprising) news: Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory now confirms that he is gay and has been in a 10-year relationship: among other places, here.

  3. geek, dork, etc. | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] discussion on geek vs. nerd. On this blog, “Geek days” of 5/22/12. And earlier, “Venn diagramming for nerds” of 9/17/11, where I […]

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