Introduction to Lavender Linguistics

Lavender Linguistics is a subfield of sociolinguistics and deals with the language of individuals belonging to the LGBTQ-community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer). Besides the (scientific) analysis of this language use, lavender linguistics also includes research on heteronormative and heterosexist language, and lexical items used to refer to sexual orientations.

The term was first used in 1951 by Gershon Legman, who studied the gay lexicon – which includes words specifically used in the gay community with different purposes. One purpose was the establishment of a community but also to have a specific code to be able to communicate safely. Due to homophobia it was important to hide the sexuality and cover it up with non-suspicious terms.

The topics included in lavender linguistics were broadened in the early 1990s by Prof. William Leap, who works as an anthropologist. He also included gender studies and cultural studies, since these topics are closely connected to lavender languages.

Most research on lavender languages so far has been conducted in the field of gay language (e.g. gay phonetics or gay discourse analysis). Some of this research is based on the folk belief that it is possible to detect gay male individuals based on their pronounciation. According to research in this field gays speak with a higher pitched voice and use a broader intonation range (than non-gay males) – David Crystal uses the term effeminate to refer to gay language. Based on this sociologist Robin Lakoff made the claim that gay speech mirrors typical traits of female speech. This claim has been proven wrong, since stereotypically gay language only mirros features which are stereotypically connected to female speech. The inclusion of stereotypes in this research also leads to the main problem of research on gay phonetics; which individuals are usually tested in this field? Gay people, who show stereotypical behaviour? Gay people who have not come out of the closet, yet? Gay people who have come out of the closet, but are usually not “suspected” of being gay? In addition to this also certain regiolects or other sociolects, which may influence the pronounciation have to be taken into consideration. It is way easier to research the lexicon or to do discourse analysis, since these topics are easier to match to a whole group of individuals within a community.

Stereotypical features of feminine language are important in studies concerning the speech of transgender indviduals. Transgender individuals are persons who display behaviours which are typically associated with the opposite gender (based on a binary gender distinction). Way more research is conducted with the speech of male-to-female individuals (MTF) than with speech of female-to-male individuals (FTM).

MTF individuals may even undergo speech therapy to sound more feminine to raise their pitch, use more intonation contours and to sound in general more softly. FTM individuals seem to be of less scientific interest, since testosterone thickens the vocal chords and makes the voice sound deeper anyway. This difference in research is based on the assumption/ideology that (heterosexual-cis-) male language is unmarked. Unmarkedness is connected to states within a certain norm. This is also connected to the fact that there is way more research on gay language than on lesbian language. Lesbian language is usually considered to sound more masculine, without any further interest on e.g. pronounciation.

Besides the mentioned languages Lavender Linguistics contains research and discussion of hereonormative and heterosexist language. But who or what creates sexism? Is it the language itself or are the speakers of a language to blame? Several languages (including German) have a strong bias towards masculine wordforms when referring to a group of people of different genders. The argument that “That’s just how the language is and not connected to sexism” often comes up in discussions on whether texts should be produced in a gender neutral way – so some people think the language itself creates sexism. Considering the fact that languages always changed and will always change in addition to the possibility of using gender neutral forms also the speakers are responsible for the creation of sexism, even though most language users may not be aware of this. But by (involuntarily) reproducing sexist forms, they do maintain.

Heterosexist discourse contains way more than just a bias towards masculine forms. This form of discourse is characterized by the pejorative use of feminine words and the complimentary use of masculine words. Examples for pejorative use of feminine words are utterances like:

1. “He is such a girl!”

2. Don’t be a pussy!


Complimentary use of masculine words includes utterances like:

3. “Wow, girl, you can play football like a man!

4. “She can climb trees like a boy.

5. “Get up and grow some balls.”

Utterances 2 and 5 also show that sexual organs are, depending on the gender they belong to, used to imply weakness (female) or strength (male).

In addition to heterosexist discourse also homophobic discourse exists, examples for this are utterances like:

6- “That’s so gay!”

7. “Real men only love women.”

8. “You don’t like HIM, are you a lesbian?”

Homophobic discourse is also used as an insult among males to refer to other males as gay, irregardless of the sexual orientation of the adressed person.


Both discourse forms (heterosexist and homophobic) are mostly used to create a masculine idendity closely connected to heteronormative and sexist structures, which are suppsoed to advocate the image of strong and powerful males.
Overall Lavender Linguistics can be summed up as a linguistic subfield dealing with all intersections between language, gender and sexuality.



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