Jane Lynch and /s/: The Effect of Addressee Sexuality on Fricative Realization

  • Julie Saigusa
Keywords: style shifting, intraspeaker variation, sociophonetics, queer linguistics, US English


 Although there has been a sizeable amount of work on the speech of gay men (e.g., Podesva 2007), there has been little to no research on gay or bisexual women, whether interspeaker or intraspeaker. This dearth is possibly due to the lack of a stereotypical gay speech style for women. Most people will recognize the gay man speech style exemplified by characters such as Kurt Hummel on Fox’s Glee , but there seems to be no female equivalent. While there may be visual stereotypes of sexuality such as “butch”  lesbians sporting baseball caps and Doc Martens (or think of Old Hollywood bisexual Marlene Dietrich’s controversial love of tuxedos), this does not come with a particular speech style. Studies such as Podesva and van Hofwegen’s  (2014) analysis of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) residents of Redding, California, have found differences in the realization of /s/ (as defined by spectral measurements such as center of gravity or the mean frequency over the spectrum) between straight and lesbian or bisexual (LB) women. This study examines American lesbian actress Jane Lynch’s realization of /s/ according to center of gravity measurements in two different interviews, with the aim of determining if her /s/ realization is affected by the sexuality of her interlocutor. Lynch’s speech was measured across two topic-controlled interviews, one with lesbian host Rachel Maddow and the other with two non-lesbian women hosts, Gayle King and Erica Hill. Results show that Lynch used lower /s/ realizations (i.e., a lower spectral mean) with the lesbian host than with the non-lesbian hosts. The analysis explores how she uses /s/ both responsively and actively to index a non-heteronormative identity and conceptually aligns herself with the lesbian host. This is mainly presented within the frameworks of Bell’s  (1984) theory of audience design and indexicality. It is argued that /s/ may not be consciously salient, but it is perceptually salient on some level (e.g., Mack and Munson 2012). It may therefore, along with other possible features, contribute to an individualized group-marking style. In the absence of a well-known “lesbian accent”, it is argued that Lynch uses /s/ as a tool to create and control her self-presentation to a heteronormative society. Secondarily, some LGBT vs. non-LGBT topic effects within one of the interviews are discussed, with the finding that Lynch has a lower mean of /s/ while discussing LGBT topics, such as same-sex marriage, than unrelated topics, such as her acting career.


Bell, Allan. 1984. Language style as audience design. Language in Society 13(2):145-204.
Boersma, Paul, and David Weenink. 2014. Praat: doing phonetics by computer [Computer program, Version 5.3.83]. Accessed 10 December 2014, URL http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/praat/
CBS. 2012, 15 May. Jane Lynch on acting career, Obama backing same-sex marriage [Video]. Accessed 4 December 2014, URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjyTJX-MQLM
Couric, Katie. 2010, 18 May. @katiecouric: Jane Lynch [Video]. Accessed 29 November 2014, URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOCQDPrj5GA
Fuchs, Suzanne, and Martine Toda. 2010. Do differences in male versus female /s/ reflect biological or sociophonetic factors? In Turbulent Sounds: An Interdisciplinary Guide, ed. S. Fuchs, M. Toda, and M. Zygis, 281-302. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Ingalls, Matt. 2012. Soundflower 1.6.2. Cycling ’74.
L/Studio. 2014, 14 May. It got better featuring Jane Lynch [Video]. Accessed 6 November 2014, URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjk7grELDfY
Mack, Sara, and Benjamin Munson. 2012. The influence of /s/ quality on ratings of men’s sexual orientation: Explicit and implicit measures of the ‘gay lisp’ stereotype. Journal of Phonetics 40(1):198-212.
Munson, Benjamin. 2011. Lavender lessons learned; or, what sexuality can teach us about phonetic variation. American Speech 86(1):14-31.
Munson, Benjamin, Elizabeth C. McDonald, Nancy L. DeBoe, and Aubrey R. White. 2005. The acoustic and perceptual bases of judgments of women and men’s sexual orientation from read speech. Journal of Phonetics 34(2):202-240.
Munson, Benjamin, and Molly Babel. 2007. Loose lips and silver tongues, or, projecting sexual orientation through speech. Language and Linguistics Compass 1(5):416-449.
NewsPoliticsInfo. 2012, May 18. Jane Lynch on The Rachel Maddow Show [Video]. Accessed 4 November 2014, URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnSJhxD1uwI
Pierrehumbert, Janet B., Tessa Bent, Benjamin Munson, Ann R. Bradlow, and J. Michael Bailey. 2004. The influence of sexual orientation on vowel production. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 116(4):1905-1908.
Podesva, Robert J. 2006. Intonational variation and social meaning: Categorical and phonetic aspects. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 12(2):189–202.
Podesva, Robert J. 2007. Phonation type as a stylistic variable: The use of falsetto in constructing a persona. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11(4):478-504.
Podesva, Robert J. 2011. Salience and the social meaning of declarative contours: Three case studies of gay professionals. Journal of English Linguistics 39(3):233-264.
Podesva, Robert J., and Janneke van Hofwegen. 2014. How conservatism and normative gender constrain variation in Inland California: The case of /s/. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 20(2):129–137.
Zimman, Lal. 2013. Hegemonic masculinity and the variability of gay-sounding speech: The perceived sexuality of transgender men. Journal of Language and Sexuality 2(1):1-39.
How to Cite
Saigusa, J. (1). Jane Lynch and /s/: The Effect of Addressee Sexuality on Fricative Realization. Lifespans and Styles, 2(1), 10-16. https://doi.org/10.2218/ls.v2i1.2016.1426