Science
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Photo by Reyer Boxem

Student and lecturer study transgender language

No more ‘ma’am’ on the phone

Photo by Reyer Boxem
Why do so many people think transgender men are women over the phone? Student and trans man Max Reuver teamed up with his lecturer Remco Knooihuizen to study this. ‘Trans men need all the help they can get.’
18 January om 13:20 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 January 2021
om 10:13 uur.
January 18 at 13:20 PM.
Last modified on January 19, 2021
at 10:13 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

18 January om 13:20 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 January 2021
om 10:13 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

January 18 at 13:20 PM.
Last modified on January 19, 2021
at 10:13 AM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

No woman enjoys being mistaken for a man.
And no man enjoys being mistaken for a woman.
It’s always painful when it happens. It makes people feel ashamed and a little dehumanised. When you’re a trans man, having started your life in the body of a woman, having had to fight to make the outside world see you the way you see yourself, it’s a terrible reminder about how your body is ‘wrong’. 

Max Reuvers, a linguistics student and a trans man, knows all about it. ‘Every time someone confirms that you’re in the wrong body, you just feel more uncomfortable and unhappy with it’, he says.

He was fifteen years old, a soprano singer and a horse girl, when he realised he’d been born in the wrong body. It took him another two years before he was ready to transition. Transgender people go through a whole process before they’re ready for an operation.

Accepted

Max started by taking hormones, which transformed him into a ‘man with breasts’, and wrestled himself into a binder every morning in order to hide his breasts. But this piece of clothing only emphasised how wrong he felt in his own body, which didn’t help. ‘When my friends told me that they would always accept me as Max, I stopped wearing it’, he says. 

You’re unhappy when someone confirms you’re in the wrong body

But he continued to wear it in public, around people he didn’t know. Just like all transgender people, he wanted people to see him for who he was. When people refuse to do that because they think they’ve noticed something that’s ‘not right’, it’s a ‘horrible denial of who you are’, says Max. ‘That makes it really personal.’

Even now, seven and a half years after his transition, he still has difficulty with the hormones he takes daily. ‘I also take asthma medication, but they don’t have anything to do with my identity. The hormones reflect how much I have to fight to be who I am every single day’, he explains.

Social factors

In a sociolinguistics class he took his first year of English studies, his lecturer Remco Knooihuizen explained why men sound like men and women sound like women. Max asked a question he is still working on answering: how does that work for transgender people? Why are trans men still referred to as ‘ma’am’ on the phone, even when they’ve long since transitioned?

Knooihuizen didn’t know. But he was interested in finding out. And he wanted Max to help him.

The way people talk isn’t just influenced by biological factors, but also by social factors. ‘Testosterone causes physical changes in your speech system and your vocal cords, lowering your voice’, says Knooihuizen. ‘In trans men, it’s the same process boys going through puberty experience. But a whole other part has to do with how you speak.’

Women tend to use different words; they tend to speak a little more formally. They also articulate better than men, and their speech pattern is more melodious. They also pronounce the letter ‘s’ a little harsher than men. That’s why trans women get speech therapy to sound more ‘female’: they not only have to speak in a higher voice, but they have to change other aspects of their speech as well.

In its infancy

There is no speech therapy for trans men. ‘People assume that they’ll be fine, since their voice gets lower anyway’, says Knooihuizen. ‘On top of that, men get away with everything when it comes to language. Women get much more flak for the way they talk than men do.’

However, the pair concludes that this isn’t always the case. Otherwise, trans men wouldn’t get misgendered so much. ‘We just don’t know which aspects play a role in this, and whether those aspects are physiological or not. The research is still in its infancy, and entirely focused on English-language speakers.’ 

We could use speech therapy to help trans men

Max and Knooihuizen have been working on helping out the research for the past three years. ‘We started by analysing recordings I made of myself when I was transitioning’, says Max. ‘When I just started out, I recorded myself every month. It got more sporadic as time wore on, but I attended a high school that focused on music, so there’s a lot of material from before and after my transition. It was enough for a proof of concept.’

Shortly after, Max met a trans man who was about to transition; he was willing to join the research. They currently have three participants who show up for a monthly recording session during the first two years of their transition. Because of the pandemic, the sessions now take place in Knooihuizen’s kitchen. 

Pitch and pronunciation

Three participants may not sound like a lot, but finding people is hard and processing the recordings is a lot of work. There’s a good reason the international expert in the field, Lal Zimman, only has seventeen cases. ‘That does mean we’ll be adding approximately 20 percent to the corpus.’ 

They analyse the recordings, consisting of conversations in Dutch and English about identity, being transgender, and university, for pitch, pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, and the frequency of the vowels. The goal is to determine which voice aspects are socialised and which are purely biological. ‘We can’t do anything about the physiological process, but if these processes turn out to be social, we could use things like speech therapy to help trans men’, says Max.

And that is really important. For transgender people dysphoria, or feeling unhappy in your body, runs deep. ‘It takes a long time before you start feeling good in your own body, so you need all the help you can get.’ 

Language differences

The study isn’t finished yet, but the first results seem to indicate that ‘female’ speech is a social phenomenon. ‘So far, we analysed one year of speech from one participant, and six months from another’, says Max. ‘Their pitch lowers, which is to be expected; it’s caused by the testosterone. There’s a difference in ‘s’ pronunciation between the Dutch and the English, so it looks like that mainly has to do with articulation and the manner of identity construction.’

Trans women are told to end their sentences in a higher pitch

Finally, the frequency of vowels lowers. This is logical due to the voice deepening, and the pair still need to filter out the effect. ‘For now, it doesn’t look like much is happening there’, says Max. That’s good news, since it would mean that this element of ‘female’ speech is also socialised. This would give speech therapists a handle on how to help with this.

Max says this is needed. ‘I attended a workshop at the Genderhome once, and I noticed how much they reinforced stereotypes. They said that women end their sentences in a higher pitch, while men end them in a lower pitch. Or that trans women should learn to say they’re going to ‘powder their nose’ rather than that they’re going to the bathroom. Who even says that?’

Even then, he felt as though experts, no matter how well-intended, had no idea what they were doing. Max hopes to change this, even if it’s just a little. 

It feels good, he says. While at first, he was worried that he was too close to the research to be objective, he now feels secure in his desires and capabilities. That also means he is definitely on his way to becoming a professional linguist. ‘What I think is particularly amazing is how my transition was instrumental in shaping my plans for the future, in a way that I never could have predicted.’

Are you a trans man about to transition, and would you like to participate in this study? Write an email to [email protected]

Dutch