Gender, Info Tech, Language

Two posts over at LanguageLog discuss research showing that gaydar,” or the ability to detect who is gay and who is straight (in this case using only information conveyed by speech) is a real, observable phenomena.

In one study,

listeners were able to get some information about speakers’ sexual orientation from neutral laboratory-setting readings of phonetically-balanced reference sentences like It’s easy to tell the depth of a well”. The self-identified straight male speakers were given an average rating of 3.2 on a scale of 7 (1=totally straight, 7=totally gay), while the (s-i) gay men were given an average rating of average of 4.6. Among the women, the (s-i) straight female speakers had an average rating of 3.2, while the (s-i) lesbian and bisexual women averaged 4.3.

Which confirms results of an earlier study where,

listeners could indeed reliably judge whether a speaker was gay or straight by listening to a sample of his speech.

However, neither study was able to pinpoint exactly what it was that the listeners heard which allowed them to make such judgments. Indeed, they seem to have done better at showing that some phenomenon, such as vocal-tract resonances” and ‘dynamism’ of the fundamental frequency contour” were not decisive. There are some interesting hypothesis as to what might be relevant, such as vowel differences and aspiration, but these were not sufficiently tested or studied to be more than conjectures.

So what happens when they finally figure it out? Suppose a computer with speech analysis software could identify your sexual orientation? Will gays and lesbians learn to mask their (sexual) identity? The potential for discriminatory uses is alarming, but it may be that gay and lesbian singles will be the biggest customers for such technology. After all, not every gay has gaydar”!