Gay Lisp

Do I Sound Gay?

The gay lisp is a stereotypical manner of speech associated with gay males, particularly in English-speaking countries, that involves their pronunciation of sibilant consonants (fricatives, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together) and sometimes others verbal features.

The phenomenon of the ‘gay lisp’ and its study are poorly understood, similar to other secondary external attributes or verbal and non-verbal mannerisms of both gay and straight people. These attributes have proven difficult to define and quantify but seem somewhat independent of other variables in the phonology of the English language, such as accent and register.

Several speech features are stereotyped as markers of gay male identity: careful pronunciation, wide pitch range, high and rapidly changing pitch, breathy tone, lengthened fricative sounds, and affrication (consonants that begin as stops [plosives] but release as a fricative). The ‘gay sound’ of some gay men seems to some listeners to involve the characteristic ‘lisp’ involving sibilants, with assibilation (hissing) or stridency (shrillness).

Professors Henry Rogers and Ron Smyth at the University of Toronto investigated this. According to Rogers, people can usually differentiate gay- and straight-sounding voices based on certain phonetic patterns. ‘We have identified a number of phonetic characteristics that seem to make a man’s voice sound gay,’ says Rogers. ‘We want to know how men acquire this way of speaking.’ However, other studies of the ‘gay lisp’ have been less conclusive.

Peter Renn’s study demonstrated that gay-stereotyped speech more strongly correlates with childhood gender-nonconformity than with sexual orientation and proposed that gay-stereotyped speech is actually childhood-gender-nonconformity speech that has become associated with male homosexuality only by proxy.

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