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Can a woman sound "gay"?

Posted on 18 September 2020

Newly awarded PhD on a sociophonetic study on "gay voice" for women

The department of Language and Linguistic Science is pleased to announce the award of a PhD in Linguistics to Salina Cuddy. Her thesis ‘Can a woman sound "gay"?: A sociophonetic study of /s/ and pitch of gay and straight British-English speaking women’ focuses on how Yorkshire women may indicate their sexual orientation in their speech and also how listeners might perceive a speaker’s sexual orientation based on their voice cues alone.

The research ‘Can a woman sound "gay"?’ demonstrated that differences between gay and straight speakers are generally subtle, but the result is different when focusing more closely on a group of gay women on a local football team, who Dr Cuddy refers to as her “sporty” group.  It was found that there were more significant differences between this sporty group and all the other participants in the study. The research illustrates that participants who were gay and also active in a sport that is typically considered masculine were more likely to have a deeper-pitched voice and to pronounce /s/ to sound more like ‘sh’. It was also found that listeners rated a voice as sounding more “homosexual” if the pitch was deeper than if the pitch was higher. Speakers who were thought to sound more “feminine” were given lower ratings for homosexuality.  Importantly, these findings were further complicated when considering the listeners’ own backgrounds. Gender had a significant impact on how participants rated the samples, with differences in rating patterns from female, male, and non-binary participants. The responses given by listeners from northern England were a little different from those given by Midlanders and Southerners: Northerners almost always rated the samples as sounding more feminine than the Midlanders and Southerners, and the Northerners generally did not rate any samples highly as sounding “homosexual”. Overall, the thesis demonstrated the complexity of identity and how many factors come together both in how a person speaks and how they perceive the speech of others.

"I really enjoyed working with this fantastic group of women and beginning to scratch the surface on how complicated something like a “gay voice” can be.  And after these years of research, my answer to the question of whether a woman can sound gay is: “it’s complicated!” - Dr Salina Cuddy, PhD University of York

Dr Salina Cuddy is currently teaching language and gender classes at the University of Sheffield, along with general sociolinguistic classes.