Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"very sibilant s" as social marker?

Yet another little oddity from the Stephanie Miller Show, the other day: They were talking about this gay-hating preacher, Ted Haggard, who got nailed for snorting meth and whatever else with a male prostitute. He of course then got "cured". They ran a piece of an interview or statement he gave and were doubting that he was/is cured. In the course of that, they commented on his speech, asking whether he 'sounded gay'. Any 'gay accent' has proven extremely elusive — impossible to pin down from what I've read. There's a ton on the topic in American Speech, like this piece, and other journals — this one article gives you plenty of recent refs.

One of the guys on the show saidmore or less, "Well, his s'es sounded very sibilant." Hmmm, I hadn't heard anything distinct about the guy's speech, including his sibilants ([s] is by definition a 'sibilant'), and would have answered "no clue" if somebody had asked me if he sounded gay. But I asked the missus last night about this and she immediately responded: "Oh, they're saying the guy was lisping." That makes sense in terms of stereotypes, but I didn't hear it. If you search YouTube for this guy, you can hear plenty samples of his speech. I just can't hear anything lisp-like happening. I don't have time — or enough interest, really — to check and see if he has particular amounts of high energy in his [s], which is what I'd take 'very sibilant' to mean.

Is this a case of people hearing what they want?


Ollock said...

This is very unscientific, but my own understanding that the "gay < s >", which is variously describes as a lisp or sometimes as "very sibilant", often refers to [s_d] or a dental sibilant (not to be confused with [T]). I've heard it in flamboyant homosexual men, but I've also heard a similar sound numerous times on the news and on videos, so I'm not certain if it isn't just a feature of a local dialect (it seems like some Northeasterners have it) or if my perception is thrown off by microphones picking up regular [s] more than other sounds.

As for Haggard, he seems to have that sound, and even a rather smooth voice (in interviews, not sermons) that is sometimes associated with gays, but I don't hear anything that really screams "I'm gay!" in his speech. I don't think you can tell by shibboleths. The most flamboyant stereotypical accents I don't believe I've ever heard "In the wild" in a situation where someone wasn't "trying to sound gay".

Mr. Verb said...

Ahhh, so dentalized is what they might mean? I'll listen again. I've long thought there was a lot of low-level (inter-speaker) phonetic variation in American [s], but haven't ever seen anything about it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This just reminds me of an ex who, while in college, went to a GLBT meeting. The organizers recommended lisping to convey to others that one was homosexual, thus obviating the question and, it was intended, making it easier to meet other gays. I, as well as most gays, I would think, cringe at this stereotype. And, then again, if I hadn't done speech therapy when I was in kindergarten, I'd be lisping today...always makes me think, the chicken or the egg?

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, I can see cringing at that. But leaving aside the chicken and egg question, I do wonder how such a stereotype ever got started.