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Straight or Gay? Vowels in Speech May Give it Away

FRIDAY, May 20 (HealthDay News) -- For the average listener, the vowel sounds in an unfamiliar voice quickly give away the speaker's sexual orientation, a new study finds.

"I'm not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel," study lead author Erik C. Tracy, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University, said in a news release from the American Institute of Physics. "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."

When hearing an unfamiliar voice at the other end of the phone line, most people instantly judge the stranger's characteristics based on how they speak, and the new study suggests listeners are usually pretty accurate in their determination.

"This is a phenomenon that occurs every day," Tracy said. "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."

In order to understand how this process works, Tracy and a colleague focused on one characteristic -- sexual orientation. They asked seven gay and seven heterosexual males to record single-syllable words (including "mass," "food" and "sell") and then played the recordings for listeners. The study participants were then asked to identify the sexual orientation of the speakers when hearing only the first letter sound of those words, the first two letter sounds, or the entire words.

The listeners were unable to determine the sexual orientation after hearing the sound of the first letter in the spoken word, for example, just the "m" sound in the word "mass." But, "when presented with the first two letter sounds [for example "ma"], listeners were 75 percent accurate," Tracy said. "We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision," he explained.

The findings are scheduled to be presented May 23 in Seattle at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Experts note that research presented at meetings has not been subjected to the same type of rigorous scrutiny given to research published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about sexual orientation.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: American Institute of Physics, news release, May 18, 2011

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