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The Sociophonetics of Gender: Acquisition and Processing across the Lifespan

Ben Munson, University of Minnesota

Abstract: Phonetic differences between adult men and women are so robust that a person's gender can be discerned from even very short samples of content-neutral speech, like a few dozen milliseconds of a single vowel.  These differences are the combined result of sex dimorphism in the vocal tract and larynx, and learned, linguistically and culturally specific gendered phonetic habits.  The research in this talk is part of a research program that seeks to understand when, why, and how gendered speech styles are acquired, and how they interact with other aspects of speech and language development.  I focus on three specific projects on this topic.  The first project examines how gendered speech develops longitudinally.  In this work, I show that children assigned male at birth and children assigned female at birth produce speech that is perceptibly different from as young as 30 months of age, and that these differences grow over the preschool years. The second project shows that boys' adherence to adult male and female speech norms differs as a function of their emerging gender identity.  The third project examines how social stereotypes about gender and sexuality in speech have changed over the past 20 years.  Together, these studies set the stage for a stage for a deeper evaluation of the cognitive-linguistic, perceptual-motor, and social variables that shape the development of gendered speech in individuals and in speech communities. 

Sponsored by the Linguistics Program and the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies