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June 3, 2011

'You sound gay,’ says OSU study

Columbus--A study presented on May 23 at the Seattle annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America posits that listeners can guess the sexual orientation of a speaker by the pronunciation of vowel sounds.

The study, by Ohio State University’s Erik C. Tracy and Nicholas P. Satariano, involved 14 men, seven gay and seven heterosexual. Researchers recorded monosyllabic words like “mass” and “sell,” then asked listeners to determine whether the speaker was gay or straight using various extents of the words.

When presented with just the opening consonant sound, listeners could not determine the sexual orientation of the speaker, but adding in the vowel sound increased the accuracy of determination.

The results are similar to earlier studies, but this study, “Differentiating Between Gay and Heterosexual Male Speech,” has not been peer-reviewed, a process that would be necessary for publication in most scholarly journals but not for presentation at a conference.

An issue concerning the paper is the limited subject pool. With only 14 subjects, likely young college-aged males at a major Midwestern school like Ohio State University, there would be a limited range of verbal expression expected. There is no information in the abstract or the coverage of the phoneme study indicating that people with regional dialects other than Midwest standard were used, nor an indication of an age range or varying gender expression.

The GLAA Forum blog notes, “No word yet on selection criteria as well. I mean, are we talking Chris Colfer or Ian McKellen here?”

“However, this reminds me of the study a while back that found that gay people tended to play the piano and straight people leaned toward the violin,” it continues. “There were calls for school systems to stop teaching the piano. This may lead to a run on speech therapy.”

There are also statistical issues at work in the study: A subject group of 14 people is likely not statistically relevant, especially given a limited make-up of the subject pool.

The study cites 1998, 2004 and 2006 works presenting similar findings supporting the idea that listeners can identify sexual orientation based on phonemes.

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