More on sounding gay

Back on June 11th, I posted about the documentary “Do I Sound Gay?”, as I was about to be interviewed by a journalist about it. I had a number of critical things to say about parts of the film, though I didn’t post them here. Now NPR’s Terry Gross has interviewed two of the principals in it, the filmmaker David Thorpe and a speech pathologist, Susan Sankin, with whom Thorpe worked in an attempt to sound “less gay”.

Enraged by this interview, Sameer ud Dowla Khan (a phonetician at Reed College) wrote an open letter to Gross, which Mark Liberman has now posted on Language Log (with a link to Fresh Air and one to a transcript of the interview). Khan has many of the same criticisms of the interview that I had of the trailer for the film (I haven’t been able to view the whole film), both of which exhibit deep ignorance about simple (and well-known) facts about language in social life. Some excerpts from Khan’s letter follow.

We know from decades of linguistic research that all people express themselves in ways that can convey an affiliation with a particular group or identity. We know that gender identity, sexual orientation, regional background, socioeconomic status, racial/ethnic affiliation, level of education, age, political beliefs, and many other social categories can be indexed through manipulations of voice quality, pitch, rhythm, vowel quality, consonant articulation, etc. Crucially, it’s not just the minorities of these categories who use such features; majority groups make use of these indexical features as well.

… This means that inviting a gay man to talk about how his voice conveys gay-maleness is (scientifically speaking) just as valid as asking a straight man to talk about how his voice conveys straight-maleness, how a white person’s voice conveys whiteness, how a middle class person’s voice conveys middle class-ness, how a college-educated person’s voice conveys education, etc. But I can say I’ve never heard of such an interview from your program or any program; this is only something that gets asked of women, gay men, African Americans, immigrants, and other people who are in a socially un(der)privileged position.

… Not only is it inaccurate to label minorities as the only ones who convey their identities through their speech, it also perpetuates a misguided belief that there is a “natural” way to speak, or a way to speak that has no “styles”. This concept of “naturalness” or “authenticity”, which came up many times in your interview, assumes that only some people (i.e. minorities) are adopting “styles”, deviating from “natural” speech in order to convey their identity.

Read the whole thing.

One Response to “More on sounding gay”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I personally would be interested in hearing how a straight man’s voice conveys straight-maleness, how a white person’s voice conveys whiteness, and how a middle class person’s voice conveys middle class-ness. (I think I already have a pretty good handle on how a college-educated person’s voice conveys education.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: