Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gayspeak: Is There a Gay Language?

Can you tell if someone is gay by the way they speak? Are there any types of physical, or linguistic, characteristics about certain people's speech that would make one think that person is gay? Or is it the words they use? What they say? Is it their body language? I asked these questions of ten people to find out what they think. Many of them had trouble pinpointing just what makes certain people sound "gay", but were sure that they would recognize it when they heard it.

As a student of linguistics, I find this subject quite interesting. I had never contemplated the possibility of a linguistic aspect to gay speech until I started thinking about it. If there are physical characteristics of gay speech, do they have an effect on how people view gays? In his collection of essays, "Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication" (Cheesbro, James W., Ed., 1981), James W. Cheesbro argues that "Communication-how gay men and lesbians relate to one another as well as to heterosexuals-is the major factor that determines public opinion about homosexuality."

How does the general public observe gay and lesbian communication? Is it through daily interaction with gays? I don't believe so, for the majority of people anyway. I believe that the prime exposure to gays for the general public is in the media. Inclusion of gays and lesbians in movies and television shows is now more common than ever before. Does the portrayal of gays in movies and television give an accurate view of gays and their communication characteristics?

These and other questions will be addressed herein. For the purposes of this essay, I will analyze these questions as they pertain to gay men only, as it is their speech "characteristics" I wish to uncover.

What's In a Name?

1924- "The NY Times first uses the word 'homosexual'".
1950's- "The NY Times routinely uses the word 'perverts' to describe homosexuals."1969- "The Los Angeles Times is boycotted for refusing to allow the word 'homosexual' to appear in any advertising."
1984- "The Wall Street Journal begins using the word 'gay' as an adjective, followed by the NY Times three years later."(Source-

Clearly, journalistic language has changed over time in talking about homo-sexuality. Many wonder how the word 'gay' became an adjective for homosexuals. Its origin and use as an adjective for homosexuals has always been fodder for discussion. After all, the word historically signified lively, happy, joyous, and bright. Traditionally, the derogatory words 'pervert', 'pansy', 'faggot', and 'queer' had been used by heterosexuals to describe homosexuals. It must have been a homosexual who came up with the use of this word, which has a more positive connotation

"The homosexual meaning of the word 'gay' actually goes back to the late 19th century. It happened during London's Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, during which a male prostitute, testifying in court, described himself as gay." (New words For Old- Howard, Philip-1977) It cannot be proven that this is the true origin of the word relating to homosexuality. Regardless, the word gay is now a part of all of our mental dictionaries as referring to homosexuals and not 'happy', 'joyous', or 'bright'.

A Gay Language

One of the questions I wanted to address in this essay with regard to people's perceptions of gays was the use of words in the gay community. I think that most people are aware of a gay slang, just as other slangs like African-American, Jewish slang, Hispanic slang, or any other slang. Usually one must be in the group to know its slang, but there are many words in gay slang that are known to all of us, such as drag queen, butch, or bull dyke. Do the words in this slang contribute to how gays are perceived by the general public?

In my research, I came upon a web site dedicated to a gay slang language that I had never heard of before. It's called 'Polari', and it originated within the homosexual subculture of late 18th century England. These homosexuals mixed with "the gypsies, tramps and thieves of popular song to produce a rich cross-fertilization of customs, phrases and traditions. As the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed settlement patterns, more and more people drifted away from villages and small communities and moved to larger towns in search of work and opportunity......A linguistic culture developed, feeding into that profession traditionally associated with poofs and whores: theater." (

So, at first 'parlarey', was known as a travelling showmen's language. It was never clearly defined as a language. "An ever-changing collection of slang from various sources including Italian, English, circus slang, 'canal-speak', Yiddish, and Gypsy languages." Although now considered a dead language, Polari has left behind many words still used in the gay communities. Here's a small word list from Polari of words still in use today:

basket- the bulge of male genitals through his clothes
bod- bodybona-
goodbutch- masculine lesbian
camp- effeminate
cottage- public loo (sex in restrooms)
dish- an attractive male; buttocks
drag- women's clothes
fantabulosa- wonderul
fruit- queen
hoofer- dancer
ogles- eyes
shyker- wig
trade- sex
troll- to walk about (looking for trade)

Some of the words on this list might be familiar to the average person, such as drag, butch, camp, etc. But most of the words on this list are still in use by gays today. Gay slang, however, does not owe all of its words to Polari.

Just the other day, a popular radio talk show carried on a long discussion about the word 'breeder'. A news story had run about a heterosexual man who had been fired by his gay boss. He was claiming wrongful termination and says he was let go because he was straight. He claims he was repeatedly called a 'breeder' by his predominantly gay co-workers and boss. As it turns out, this word is used by homosexuals to describe heterosexuals. The radio show hosts questioned the very existence of this word and asked listeners to call in if they had any information. Within a couple of minutes, a gay man called in and confirmed the existence and use of the word.

Other newer words have also come into today's gay slang dictionary. Here's a short list:

fag hag- straight female who prefers the company of gay men

PLU- acronym for 'People Like Us'

queer- used by gays as a positive connotation for homosexuality

dish- gossip

Communication between gays, what they say as opposed to how they say it, is quite unique. For instance, many gay males use alternate "lady-names", used as a form of address within gay circles. It's quite common for gay men to use the names of women when they are in social settings. I once knew a group of friends who named themselves after each of "The Golden Girls". (Blanch, Dorothy, etc.)

Portrayal of Gays in Television

As I noted earlier, the most common place to see a gay person today is either in the movies or on television. With each passing year, more and more gay characters come into our lives through these mediums. I believe that the public's perceptions about gays are most influenced here. Just as labels of gays and gay slang have changed through the years, so has the media portrayal of homosexuals.

Over the last 25 years or so, gays have mostly been portrayed as a source of comedy, both in television and cinema. When Jack Tripper (played by John Ritter) had to pretend he was gay on the hit 70's TV series "Three's Company", we all laughed at his 'gay' antics in his interaction with the landlord, Mr. Roper.

The 80's brought the sketch comedy series, "In Living Color", which featured a regular skit entitled "Men On...". This vignette centered around two overtly gay hosts of a talk show who reviewed movies, television shows, and travel spots. The skits were very funny and they coined many a phrase for the water cooler. ("Then we went back to Greece!", "Two snaps up!", and "Jewel, the gum that explodes in your mouth!") However, these men were outrageously portrayed as very effeminate and came to be known as 'typical' homosexuals by many a viewer.

The 1990's brought even more gays into our living rooms. "Will and Grace" has become a hit show with not one, but two main gay characters. Although a little different than their portrayal in "Three's Company" and "In Living Color", these characters still seem to have the same 'gay' qualities as they did before: flamboyant and effeminate. These words seem synonymous with the word gay, partly from television, but even more so in film.

Homosexuality in Film

The documentary, The Celluloid Closet, chronicles the history of gays and how they have been portrayed in movies. It's a good documentary, with some excellent points of view narrated by stars such as Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg. Some excerpts of narration from the film, which relate to this paper, follow:

-"In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at---or something to pity--or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people.....and gay people what to think of themselves."

-"From the very beginning, movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire source of humor."

-"The sissy---Hollywood's first gay stock character. The sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between. He didn't seem to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive."

-"The production code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen.-----Now they had a new identity, as cold blooded villains."

-"Hollywood had learned to write movies between the lines. And some members of the audience had learned to watch them that way."

-"Whenever the subject turned serious, and actual sex was suggested, out came the blue pencil, the scissors and the scene."

-"The long silence is finally ending. New voices have emerged, open and unapologetic. They tell stories that have never been told----about people that have always been there."

The award winning documentary tells us a lot about how Hollywood has shaped the public's views on homosexuals. The film takes us to the late 1980's, around the time of Academy Award winning Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks. Since then, even more movies have been released featuring gay characters in lead roles. Such hit movies as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Birdcage, In & Out, Love, Valor, Compassion, and countless others have shown gays to exhibit the same stereotypes, for the most part. Much of what makes up this stereotype that I speak of is clearly the way gays talk, which brings us back to my original question:

Can You Tell If Someone Is Gay By the Way They Talk?

I did not pose this question on a survey. Rather, I randomly asked a handful of people, from students at the university to other friends and relatives, during the course of normal conversation. With each conversation, I became more and more interested in their answers. Here's a synopsis of what they said:

-Can you tell if someone is gay by how they talk?

Not one person answered yes. All of them either said no or sometimes. To those who said no, I asked them to think of a time when they've ever overheard someone talking and thought that they were gay. Each time I said this, the person acknowledged that scenario at one time or another. So, the final consensus among my subjects is that 'sometimes' is the right answer.

-When you can tell, what is it about their speech that tells you that they are gay? (I was attempting to get some answers that I could put into linguistic data).

It is here that I got the most interesting answers. Many of the subjects had to think hard about it. Some of their answers are as follows:-

"They talk high."-

"They speak with lisps."

"They use [s] a lot."

"They stress things"

"They make words longer."

These answers were similar in scope for each of the subjects. Many of them said that body language and the content of their words were also signs, but I would make it clear to each of them that I was specifically referring to their speech. Before I began my research, I tried to find my own ideas of what makes a person "sound" gay. I must say, the subjects seemed to concur with my ideas.

I came up with three factors, or characteristics, of gay speech. One of them is that they seem to have a higher pitch than the average masculine voice. As mentioned in one of the excerpts from the Celluloid Closet, "the sissy occupied the space between manly and womanly." I believe that this pitch, or tone, difference is accounted for in this statement.

The next physical characteristic of gay speech is phonological. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it, but it seems that gay men who fall under the category of speaking 'gay' emphasize fricatives, especially [s] and [z]. Or they make them longer than the average person would. There's also an almost dental quality to these sounds, commonly associated with a lisp, as one of the people I spoke to pointed out.

Finally, gays seem to stress words more emphatically than most. One of the main characters on Will and Grace, Jack, tends to do this often. The strongest word stress is usually on the last word in a statement. I'm not too familiar with the patterns of intonation, but I'd hazard a guess that a different intonation pattern exists here as well.

Obviously, these characteristics of gay speech are not characteristics of every gay man's speech. Not all gays speak in this manner. In fact, there are many heterosexual men who seem to possess these physical characteristics associated with gay speech. Unfortunately, a good portion of the general public believe that this is indeed how gay people talk. Yet another stereotype that exists in this world! The better part of blame for this rests clearly on the powers that be in the film and television industry. In order to make us laugh, these, and other stereotypical characteristics of gay men, have been quite often exaggerated by Hollywood. From the high pitched wails of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, to Blaine and Antoine's 'Sssuper Bowl Sssunday Ssspecial' on In Living Color, to "Just Jack!" on Will and Grace, many of us believe that all gay people talk in this manner.

So, can we tell if someone is gay by how they talk? Not really. Of course, the depictions we see of homosexuals in the tv shows and movies are based partly on fact. So realistically gay speech characteristics do exist, but not in all gay men. Many gays do speak in a higher pitch, emphasize their s's and z's, and use different patterns of phrasal stress or intonation. It is these common characteristics in their speech that we have now come to know as Gayspeak.

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