Vowel sounds help to distinguish between gay, heterosexuals

Updated: May 22, 2011, 11:04 AM IST

Washington: A new study has suggested that the vowel sounds in an unfamiliar voice help identify a speaker``s sexual orientation.

“This is a phenomenon that occurs every day,” said study leader Erik C. Tracy, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University.

“We are constantly speaking with people we don’t know on our phones, and just from this conversation, we might be able to identify personal characteristics about that person, such as their gender, age, race, or sexual orientation,” added Tracy.

To know what exactly while hearing that speech make us take these decisions, he decided to focus on sexual orientation, which—previous studies had shown—can be correctly ascertained by listeners hearing only one monosyllabic word.

In a series of experiments, Tracy and colleague Nicholas P. Satariano had seven gay and seven heterosexual males record a list of monosyllabic words, such as “mass,” “food,” and “sell”.

Listeners were then asked to identify the sexual orientation of the speakers when played those entire words, the first two letter sounds (say, “ma”), or just the first letter sound (“m”). Although they couldn’t accurately guess the sexual orientation of the speaker with just the first letter sound, “when presented with the first two letter sounds, listeners were 75 percent accurate,” said Tracy.

“We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision,” he said.

So while listeners are not very good at making a determination when they hear just the first consonant of a word (the “m”), when they hear the first consonant and the subsequent vowel (“ma”), “their accuracy levels increase dramatically,” he added.

“I`m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel,” said Tracy.

“Other researchers have done various acoustic analyses to understand why gay and heterosexual men produce vowels differently. Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision,” added Tracy.