University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


Sociophonetic research on /s/ has revealed that sex, gender identity, sexuality, and regional identity can significantly structure the variation found in the production and perception of its acoustic signal. Relative /s/ frontness has been associated with femininity (e.g., Stuart-Smith 2007) and gay-sounding speech (e.g., Munson et al. 2006), while relative /s/ retraction has been associated with masculinity (e.g., Zimman 2013) and a Southern or country identity (e.g., Campbell-Kibler 2011). However, much of the work to date has been experimental in nature or conducted in urban centers. This paper analyzes the acoustic realization of /s/ in one inland non-urban community in Northern California, where speakers carry strong anti­urban (and anti­liberal) sentiment. Our acoustic analysis examines sociolinguistic interviews with 42 speakers, diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, and attitudes toward rurality (town­oriented versus country­oriented). In this community, the data show a stronger polarization between men and women than found in urban settings (e.g., Hazenberg 2012, Zimman 2012), likely due to social conservatism prevalent in the community. These prominent gender norms seriously constrain the production of /s/ by gay men, who pattern much more like straight men in this community than to urban gay speakers. At the same time, variants of /s/ prevalent among straight country-oriented speakers serve as resources for sexual minorities (i.e., lesbians) to construct non-heteronormative identities without transgressing gender norms.