Adam Lambert gives his vowels lots of space. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Greg Hernandez/Flickr)

Cognitive psychologists from Ohio State University have completed a study that suggests people’s sexual orientation can be determined by the way in which they form vowels when they speak, reports Health Day. The study findings, which will be presented May 23 at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in Seattle, indicate that a majority of test subjects could identify which speakers were homosexual based on sound samples via telephone alone.

A phonetical devotion to gaydar

Lead study author Dr. Erik Tracy has seen the results, but he admitted to not fully understanding them.

“I’m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel,” he said in a news release. “Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision.”

Tracy believes that the analysis of vowel sounds is part of the unconscious judging process almost everyone goes through when they first come into contact with a person whom they’ve never met. Gender, age, race and sexual orientation are all part of the daily screening process. Such colloquialisms as “gay voice” and “gay lisp” may very well be recognized by the equally colloquial sense referred to as “gaydar.”

“We are constantly speaking with people we don’t know on our phones, and just from this conversation, we might be able to identify personal characteristics about that person,” he said.

Putting a finger on gaydar

Guessing someone’s sexual orientation isn’t as simple as detecting a lisp or a higher-pitched voice. Study organizers had seven gay and seven heterosexual males record one-syllable words like “mass,” “food” and “sell,” then played the recordings for listeners. Recordings of lesbians were also included. After listening to only the first letter sound of each spoken word, participants weren’t able to determine the sexual orientation of the speakers with accuracy. However, when the first two letters were heard, listeners’ “gaydar” was accurate 75 percent of the time. As the only data used to make the determination was acoustic – and multiple trials produced similarly accurate results – luck was eliminated from the equation.

Sampling from the phoneme buffet

Researchers noticed that in the speech patterns of lesbian and bisexual women, less fronted (articulated with the tongue blade relatively far forward in the mouth) /u/ and /ɑ/ vowel sounds are used than is the case with heterosexual women. Gay males speak with more expanded vowel space than heterosexual men.

These and other findings in the area of sexual orientation and phonetics support the conclusion that innate biological factors influence speech patterns via selective selective adoption of speech patterns generally characteristic of the opposite sex.


Acoustical Society of America:

Health Day:

Kids Health:

Vowel sounds Wiki:

Thoughts on ‘the gay voice’ or ‘gay accent’

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