Sexual minorities and ongoing sound change

As part of our Pride Month celebrations, we caught up with Dr Damien Mooney, Senior Lecturer in French Linguistics and Language Change, to hear about his research into how sexual minorities participate in ongoing sound change, and the importance of inclusion in research and beyond.

Language variation and change

The study of language variation and change attempts to identify the linguistic and social factors that influence the pronunciations and grammatical features that speakers use. Sometimes, for relatively arbitrary reasons, new pronunciations – and other linguistic features such as new words – enter into being and establish themselves in the language. These slowly replace old pronunciations or ways of speaking. The way this happens is very simple: one speaker who already uses the new feature interacts with others and, if the relationship between them is favourable (i.e. if they like each other and seek each other’s approval), they are likely to adopt features of each other’s speech, including new pronunciations.

On a larger scale, these basic interactions between speakers lead to language change, whereby more speakers adopt the new pronunciation or word into their repertoire and then begin using it in their interactions with others. For example, this is how the common English phenomenon of ‘dropping your ts’ – known in linguistics as glottal stopping – spread from Cockney English to almost all varieties of English in the UK. In essence, linguistic changes spread throughout the speech community because we adjust our linguistic behaviour to conform to other people like us. So, what happens when you’re different? When you’re gay or trans or not white? Does the same motivation to conform exist?

Why is this piece of research important?

When a sound change (where an established pronunciation is replaced by a new one) is underway in a given speech community, young female speakers have been repeatedly shown to act as the vanguards of change. They push the change forward and implement the use of the new pronunciation as much as one full generation ahead of male speakers.

Set of Lego people, each a different colour to represent the Progress Pride Flag

Up until now, sociolinguistic studies have implicitly assumed that the male and female speakers in their samples are heterosexual. While some research has considered the role of minority ethnicities in large-scale sound changes, a more nuanced articulation of gender, which takes a male or female speaker’s sexuality into account, has been absent from these studies. A small number of studies have examined the speech of homosexual male and female speakers, usually with the aim of analysing pronunciations that act as a perceptual cue for homosexuality when heard by others. These studies did not, however, focus on how gay men and women engage in sound changes in progress, but on what makes them sound gay. The present study asks the questions that other research did not; in particular, what is the role of sexual minorities in driving language change forward?

What does the research project involve?

The project began in 2022 with a pilot study in Paris, France. I collected speech samples from 22 native French speakers that self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. All speakers were required to read a short text and a long list of words for which there was a possibility of using a new pronunciation or an older pronunciation. The pilot study focused in particular on the ongoing changes affecting the pronunciation of the Parisian French nasal vowels in words like bain (‘bath’), banc (‘bench’), and bon (‘good’).

I am currently in the process of analysing the data acoustically, using speech analysis software, in order to identify fine-grained differences in pronunciation between speakers and groups, if they exist. The analysis of heterosexual speakers will have the dual aim of documenting the progression of this change, known to be underway in French, and of providing a baseline against which to compare the evidence for these changes in the speech of the gay and lesbian participants.

What impact is this research expected to have?

While there is some research on the role played by African American and Latinx people in predominantly white speech communities, this project will be the first to consider sexual minorities as an integral part of the wider social order.

The data-driven principles advanced by this study will constitute a significant point of reference for future studies of language and sexuality, providing an in-depth empirical analysis of the speech of gay men and lesbians. The project will contribute a more comprehensive examination of sound changes known to be underway in the sociolinguistic literature on French. The research will also provide a framework within which to undertake quantitative linguistic research that is experimental, focusing on language variation and change, but also theoretical, examining the extent to which an individual’s performance of sexual identity influences the extent to which they engage in sound changes set in motion by their heterosexual peers.

The cross-disciplinary methodology will demonstrate the contribution that sociolinguistic theory can make to the central focus of queer studies, namely interrogating heterosexuality by dismissing its claims to naturalness.

What are the next steps?

Once the results of the pilot study are processed, the hope is to establish a set of data-driven principles that can be tested in other contexts and in other languages. The findings of the Paris study will be formalised in a research article which will then form the basis of future studies on a wider variety of sexual identities, gender identities, and sound changes, in both French and English, in Paris and in other large cities such as London, Montreal, and Toronto.

The pilot study is the first step in a research project that will attempt to transform current theories of language change by providing a quantitative account of the way sexual minorities engage in mainstream linguistic change. The project will create an open-access corpus of natural speech – a database of speech audio files and text transcriptions – of both homosexual and heterosexual speakers, making all sound files and transcriptions from this study and from future, larger studies publicly available. The essence of the project, however, is its continued commitment to social justice: it aims to address the continued exclusion of sexual minorities from large-scale social scientific studies, which not only invisibilises queer people, but underlines their behaviour, linguistic or otherwise, as gender-deviant.

Learn more about research in the Faculty of Arts.

Visit the University’s Pride 2022 page to see how the University is celebrating LGBT+ staff and students.

Find out about LGBT+ equality initiatives at the University of Bristol.

Explore the University Library’s Pride Month page, which showcases a range of LGBT+ books, films, archives and other resources.

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