California English and the “Gay Accent”

Castro District

The Castro District, San Francisco

Is there such a thing as a “gay accent?”  I wouldn’t even touch this question were there not a decent amount of scholarly research about it.  The notion of “talking gay,” after all, is a staple of homophobic parody.   So before going further, let me state that I believe gay men speak with as wide an array of voices as heterosexual men.  I don’t give credence to the idea of a universal “gay voice.”

That being said, a recent article in American Speech suggests that a certain type of subcultural “gay accent” is not only a measurable phenomenon, but may have a unique relationship to a regional variety of English.

The study in question is Robert J. Podesva’s The California Vowel Shift and Gay Identity.  Podesva analyzed recordings of a single gay man living in San Francisco, Regan, in three different contexts:  a night out drinking, a private dinner with a friend, and a meeting with his boss.  As the situation becomes more informal, Podesva finds that Regan’s accent becomes notably more “Californian.”

California English is marked by the California Vowel Shift, an academic term for something many Americans recognize:  the Valley girl accent is an exaggerated example of this shift.  The vowel in “bid” shifts toward the vowel in “bed,” “bed” shifts toward “bad,” and “bad” toward “bod” (how very Californian).  Meanwhile, the vowels in “bud,” “bode” and “boot” all shift frontward.

What Podesva finds with Regan is that this shift is much less pronounced when he is talking to his boss than when he is out with friends.  In particular, Regan exhibits three markers of California English in this latter situation:  the word “bad” is pronounced with a vowel closer to the vowel in “bod,” and the vowels in “boot” and “boat” are both pronounced fronter.

Podesva concludes:

In this article, I have argued that features of the [California Vowel Shift] can be used in particular gay styles (Regan’s gay “partier” persona) because regional accents index a range of meanings much richer than geographic location. In particular, the CVS indexes “fun” and “laid-back” meanings that derive from stereotypical California character types (valley girl, surfer, stoner, slacker), whose circulation led to the enregisterment of California ways of speaking.

An arguable limitation of Podesva’s study in that his subject lives in California. Does the English of the Golden State influence the speech of gay men elsewhere in the country?

My own impressions suggest this may be the case. I have, even before reading Podesva’s article, noticed some curiously Californian accent features of gay men in New York City. For example, the young (and openly gay) fashion designer Christian Siriano exhibits quite a few features that are typical of California English, despite neither growing up in nor living in California:

Siriano’s vowel for “that” and similar words is notably backer and lower than in most American accents, and, as Podesva notes with Regan, the vowels in “goat” and “goose” are also a good deal fronter as well.

Podesva argues that gay men may adopt these features because California English is associated with “fun” or “lightness.” I’d be interested in seeing if there is a generational divide: most of the pop cultural references Podesva mentions are from the 1980′s and 90′s. Is this a more recent phenomenon?  Do older gay American men exhibit such features?

I’m also curious if there are similar regional accents that influence the “gay accent” of other countries. Is there a regional accent that influences “gay” speech in the UK? Ireland? Australia?

Citation:

Podesva, Robert J (2011).  The California Vowel Shift and Gay Identity.  American Speech, 86.1, 32-49.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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39 Responses to California English and the “Gay Accent”

  1. boynamedsue says:

    Very interesting article.

    I’d say that your first premise is wrong though, that ‘talking gay’ is merely a homophobic stereotype. While the accent differences you point to are interesting, they are tiny features when compared to the elephants in the room, pitch and intonation. These features are controlled by their speakers and have symobolic meanings within the subculture, and as signifiers to the wider speech community.

    Of course, many gay men no ever ever adopt the raised pitch and intonation patterns of what is considered ‘camp’, but they are features which are quite common in gay men and very rare in straight ones.

    • trawicks says:

      Podesva does mention one remarkable prosodic feature: Regan exhibits “mean maximum F0 levels … considerably higher than the average male speaking F0 in the low to mid 100hz range.” I would agree with you, then, that some extreme variants of gay male prosody are beyond the scope of the vast majority of heterosexual male speech.

      My point, though, is that I don’t think there is a “natural” gay voice. Rather, I think there are unique types of gay speech conditioned by certain cultural environments.

      • boynamedsue says:

        Oh no, I agree that there is no natural gay voice, just as there is no Thai voice, or German voice. Also, almost all gay men pitch their voices within the range of straight men, but a subset of gay men pitch their speech consistently towards the high end of that range. This is not necessarily an artifact of gay culture, straight men are actively discouraged from pitching their voices towards the higher end of their range in most Western cultures, so it could be two effects working in tandem.

        Interestingly, in Romanian culture, straight men speaking in a very high pitch is part of normal speech in situations of surprise and anger, sometimes requiring men with deeper voices to use falsetto!

  2. boynamedsue says:

    Sorry ‘ no ever ever’ = ‘never ever’

  3. Wade says:

    I too have noticed this before reading this entry or that study. I have actually mistaken straight Californian and Canadian men (who have a similar vowel shift) for gay men based on their speech. And I have thought gay men from the Midwest and South were from California or Canada based on their speech. I think I may have been hearing a more open TRAP vowel (than mine) in their accents. I’m honestly not trying to offend anyone with this comment btw.

    • Dw says:

      The quality of his vowels sounded almost completely normal to me, but then I’m a native near-RP speaker. Of course RP speech I sometimes accused of sounding “gay”, but I thought that was more a matter of lack of T-voicing (and possibly the quality of the BATH set), neither of which this speaker has.

      If anything makes this speaker sound “gay”, I should have thought it was the intonation rather than the vowel qualities.

      • Wade says:

        I don’t remember mentioning him in my comment. I’ll have to look again.

      • trawicks says:

        Incidentally, RP has undergone a vowel shift similar to Cali English, in that BAT has shifted back, GOAT and GOOSE (and often FOOT) have moved forward.

        • dw says:

          Well, I suppose RP BAT/TRAP has moved back to [æ] after having made a brief excursion up to [ɛ] in the early 20th century.

          Is RP GOOSE fronted? I suppose it depends on your definition of RP.

        • trawicks says:

          Looking at RP from 1900 onward, I’d say GOOSE has fronted quite a bit, from the cardinal [u:] of Edwardian U-RP to the more typical [u+:] you hear among mainstream RP speakers, and finally to more front variants among “contemporary RP” speaker. The same is true of GOAT and STRUT.

          Whether RP itself has shifted is debatable. It’s more likely that RP has simply made some “concessions” to vowel shifts occuring in regional accents, in order to steer clear of some of the shibboleths of “posh” speech.

          Another possible example of disassociation: Wells mentioned (in 1982) that among U-RP speakers with raised TRAP pronunciations, their children sometimes exhibited the opposite–a more back realization closer to [a].

    • m.m. says:

      I’m with you on mistaking some gays who are not from california as being from california based on their accent, but I’d probly never get them confused with canadians, who may sound similar, but still give off a foreign accent to my native and gay californian ears xD

    • trawicks says:

      @Wade,

      I’ve noticed this in the speech of gay men of the Great Lakes region as well–much less of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Although interestingly, I have a female friend who was raised in what I would tentatively call a “hippie” household in Michigan who exhibits similar California-type features. It makes me wonder if she’s an example of Podesva’s theory, since the countercultural movement is also associated with Cali.

      @m.m.

      I don’t live in California, but own perception is that the CVS is much less advanced than the Canadian Vowel Shift. Or rather, it’s only that advanced in small subsets of the population. For example, in the speech of very young California women (i.e. born after 1990), I’ve heard some of the backest pronunciations of the vowel in “cat” of any North American accent. But for the majority of Californians, I haven’t found that this vowel to be much different than GenAm.

      • m.m. says:

        I’d suppose I share your perception that at the moment, there is only a small minority with advanced CVS, and most of them tend to be young. I’ve only encountered a handful of people over ~25 who show any kind of shifting, and even within my age group, shifting is relatively uncommon. Oddly, the backest vowel I’ve heard for ‘cat’ so far has come from a 23 year old gay male, but the strongest rounding I’ve heard for a cot/caught merged vowel came from a 7 year old female. I’d consider myself an infreqhifter.

        • m.m. says:

          Should say *infrequent shifter.

        • trawicks says:

          The most extreme variety of the CVS I’ve heard was from an 18-year-old girl from Orange County, CA. She exhibited an extremely back variant of the TRAP vowel, ranging to what I perceived to be [ɑ+]. But I think this is very atypical. In fact, I believe I read somewhere that such extreme varieties of the CVS soften as the speaker gets older.

        • m.m. says:

          Yeah, I’ve heard the same about it “softening” with age.

  4. Wade says:

    Come to think of it, California does have the largest gay population of any state. Maybe that has something to do with it. I really don’t know.

  5. Sen says:

    I wonder how gays speak in a dialects with a differentiation in pronunciation based on gender. From what I observed, in gender biased languages such as Japanese gays tend to adopt the manner of speech of the opposite gender (feminine pronouns, particles, and honorifics), and even in Canada, the Canadian Shift is more prevalent in males and less so in females and gays. But what about, for instance, Geordie where /aʊ/ is more often pronounced /u/ by males and /eʉ/ by females? I would also be interested to know if there is a lesbian accent.

    As for the UK gay accent (again, I can only speak based on what I have observed), it seems that most regional dialects I have heard have their own gay accents and do not tend toward any one specific accent. Although, I have noticed that gays in the southeast often speak in a posh RP accent, sometimes even exaggeratedly posh (but perhaps this may well have more to do with the areas I visited than anything else).

    • boynamedsue says:

      The ultra-RP gay accent is surely a result of the comparatively high level of homosexuality in Public Schools? I suspect a detailed long-range sexual behaviour study of former inmates of Eton and Ankara penetentiary would more or less disprove the theory that homosexuality is predominantly genetic.

      • Sen says:

        The English public school system is a plausible explanation, and may have more truth to it than my own hypothesis. Women more often speak a prestige dialect than men; perhaps due to their disenfranchised status vested in their sex (or their sex itself). Gays may experience something akin to this whether due to a similar marginalization by society or even a similarity to women. Although, I might be completely wrong. After all, the “gay capitals” are Blackpool and Brighton, and most of them certainly do not speak RP.

      • dw says:

        what do you mean by the “ultra-RP gay accent”? That some gay British men speak extreme RP? Is that even true?

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve also noticed a tendency toward more “posh” accents in gay men in the UK. Curiously, I’ve also noticed that some British gay men speak in a slightly lower register, with a vocal setting similar to U-RP. That might give credence to the “public school” theory.

    • Ed says:

      I think that there is some of this in Yorkshire*. Young women are much more likely than men to use [ɵ:] for GOAT, and I notice that many homosexual men use this pronunciation as well. Straight men tend to use [ɔ:] or [ɔʊ].

      * I appreciate that there are areas of Yorkshire where [ɵ:] is absent and some where it is so dominant that straight men use it as well. I’m painting a broad stroke as I don’t know the exact isoglosses.

  6. AL says:

    Christian Siriano’s accent makes me think of young people.

    What type of accent does John Waters speak with; is it similar to Siriano’s, or different?

  7. Danny Ryan says:

    Don’t confuse ”higher percentage of homosexuality” with “greater visibility of homosexuality” in areas where gay culture was able to flourish openly. In areas where being gay, especially for men, is still strongly stigmatized, the percentage of actual homosexual behaviour may not even be significantly lower, it is simply more closeted, or less visual.
    Another interesting feature of “camp talk” – which I prefer to “gay accent” – is using the feminine pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ and nouns such as ‘sister’ in reference to other gay (often camp) men.
    I also notice a tendency to hiss the /s/ more strongly, i.e. the /s/ is more dental than alveolar.
    I would also like to mention that I know plenty of gay men who don’t exhibit these features and would only put them on to parody camp behaviour, and of course I’ve also met the odd straight guy (or was he???) who showed very features of ‘camp talk’.
    I do think ‘camp talk’ is a parodistic, stylised, subcultural emulation of female speech with all its implications. I think what has been mentioned in relation to RP being the prestige dialect is very much true and while tough straight men will often exhibit features of regional and dialect speech more strongly as a sort of ‘in-code’, women will often modify towards the prestige standard. Gay men in turn may either be emulating female speech patters here, too, or mere don’t feel the pressure to conform to the ‘in-code’ of the men’s men – or both, of course…

  8. Ioana says:

    @boynamedsue: do you have a source for the interesting assertion about Romanians? I am Romanian (well, half ;) ) and have never noticed this…

    • boynamedsue says:

      No, Romanians don’t seem to notice, I’ve asked a lot of people about it. I live in Bucharest and have noticed it on literally dozens of occasions. Also, a lot of visitors from the UK have expressed their surprise at how high-pitched Romanians sound.

      It’s not on all occasions (though there seem to be more men who always use higher-pitched voices), but the expression of surprise and irritation seems to be to increase both volume and pitch considerably, at least among some men in some situations.

      I can’t find a clip on youtube where people do this, because natural conversation is rare on there, and my Romanian is not fantastic. But picture two friends disagreeing, and one chipping in with “Nu frate….” at higher pitch. Have you ever heard anything like that?

      • Ioana says:

        It’s definitely true that pitch and volume go up (e.g., when I told my cousin he didn’t know anything about [whatever], he responded ‘ba DA stiu!” with the second word somewhat higher). I don’t think it’s much different than the same phrase/same situation in English “but i DO know” in pitch contour, though…

        • boynamedsue says:

          I suppose so, though in English it would be only on one syllable, it is less common for men, and is very uncommon in some dialects, even in RP it’d certainly less common than it is in Romanian.

          The pitch that men use when doing this in Romanian is higher though, and it seems to stretch over more syllables. Also it doesn’t always fall back down.

  9. sasik says:

    The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class.

    A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect; a regional dialect may be termed a regiolect or topolect. The other usage refers to a language socially subordinate to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not a variety of it or in any other sense derived from it.

    This more precise usage enables distinguishing between varieties of a language, such as the French spoken in Nice, France, and local languages distinct from the superordinate language, e.g. Nissart, the traditional native Romance language of Nice, known in French as Niçard.

    A dialect is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology, including prosody). Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation, the term accent is appropriate, not dialect. Other speech varieties include: standard languages, which are standardized for public performance (for example, a written standard); jargons, which are characterized by differences in lexicon (vocabulary); slang; patois; pidgins or argots.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialect

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dialects_of_the_English_language

    http://www.neutralaccent.com/dialect.php

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