Gay or Shtraight?
Posted by Neal on July 2, 2013
One of my posts from 2011 has been gathering some new comments recently, and not spam comments, either. The post was about the pronunciation of “str” clusters as [ʃtr], and a reader named Andrew Leitch left this comment earlier this week:
I first noticed it when my sister in law returned to Canada from grad school at Purdue and work in New Jersey more than ten years ago. It took a while but now I’m hearing it everywhere. Recently I heard it from a middle aged, white, Canadian, male, construction superintendent. That was the most surprising.
When movie characters, such as those described above, use it, I think they are saying: Only pussies and mamma’s boys would say straight when you can say shtraight. Straight is for fastidious librarians; shtraight is for guys who know how to load a gun and stuff a 20 down a shtripper’s g-string.
It’s an anti-lisp. It says: Not only am I not gay, but I’m almost unbelievably shtraight.
This is getting us in to sociolinguistics territory, a topic I didn’t get into when I reported the findings of a study by David Durian in that last post. One main idea (maybe the) main idea in sociolinguistics is that there are layers of meaning in what we say beyond the actual compositional meaning of the phrases. That’s also the main idea in pragmatics; the difference is that sociolinguistics is more specifically about layers of meaning that signal things your relationships with others. For example, y’all doesn’t mean just “second person plural”; it could also mean, “I am (or wish to be perceived as) a Southern American.” Sociolinguists refer to very specific kinds of variation, such as use of y’all, as variables, and say that they index various characteristics. Durian found that [ʃtr] indexed urban-ness, at least in central Ohio.
Leitch’s claim, then, is that [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality; indeed, a kind of hyper-heterosexuality. So I asked my followers on Twitter:
So can we falsify? Do I have any gay followers who are aware that they realize /str/ as [Str]?
— Neal Whitman (@LiteralMinded) June 20, 2013
Josef Fruehwald tweeted back that Campbell-Kibler (2011) had found that “speakers with backed /s/ were rated more masculine and more "country."” More on that later. Douglas Bigham responded with a personal observation:
Gay hicks use /shtr/ all the time; I've noticed it all over the country, too. That doesn't make it NOT hetero, tho.
A good point. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean that you’ll use the behaviors (linguistic or otherwise) that index gayness. A follower named Derron Borders offered a clearer counterexample, in himself:
I am completely and utterly gay (not uber masc[uline]) and am from Circleville, Ohio and definitely say /shtr/.
He followed up with a note of caution:
It's hard to say any phonetic item indexes a particular gender or sexuality, b/c of variation in the pop[ulation].
Moving away from the question of whether [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality, Lucy Fisher and Lauren Squires offered some other observations of people with this pronunciation. Fisher noted that [ʃtr] was “quite downmarket” in the UK, while Squires reported hearing it in The Real Housewives of Atlanta and in the speech of NPR announcers.
Moving back to the issue of heterosexuality-indexing, I read the paper by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, who found that /s/-backing (in other words, pronouncing /s/ further back in the mouth, as [ʃ]) interacted with other speech variables she was investigating (pitch, and pronouncing the -ing suffix as -in). For example, if a male speaker doesn’t already have an obvious Southern (American) accent, /s/-backing will make him sound more “country”–an interesting contrast from Durian’s findings. In addition, it affects perception of three other characteristics, as it
shifts the relationship between competence, sexuality and masculinity, by increasing perceptions of the complex style “masculine, unintelligent, straight man.”
In other words, although the effect isn’t completely clear-cut or consistent, Leitch was on to something. From an articulatory standpoint, his assertion that /s/-backing is the “anti-lisp” is exactly right. Campbell-Kibler even refers to a lisp as /s/-fronting: pronouncing /s/ with your tongue a bit too far forward, so that it becomes [θ]. Unlike with /s/-backing, linguists agree that /s/-fronting has a very clear effect on listener perception, and it’s the same effect that the person on the street might tell you: It makes a man sound gay. (It’s not the only thing that does, of course, but the effect is there.) So the real opposition between /s/-fronting and /s/-backing actually does reflect to some extent the opposition between being gay and being “almost unbelievably shtraight.”