Thesis Christ: Studying Genderfluid People and Their Language

This week, the Quest had the privilege of sitting down with Montreal Benesch to talk about their thesis. Benesch is a senior linguistics major who recently received approval from the Institutional Review Board for their final experiment. Within the linguistics field, Benesch is particularly interested in looking at how gender identity can impact the way we speak, see ourselves, and how others see us.

Benesch began with an overall explanation of what linguistics is; they described the field as “approaching language with the scientific method.” Their thesis is focused on the specific subfield of linguistics called sociophonetics, which, according to Benesch, is the study of how people’s identity affects the way they speak, and how people construct their identities through their speech. Everything from someone’s ethnicity, region of origin, or gender — which Benesch is specifically looking at — can and does affect how a person produces different sounds.

Previous research in the field, according to Benesch, connects a person’s gender to the way that they speak. Benesch’s research focuses on genderfluid people, specifically how their speech changes if they are feeling a different gender. They said there is a virtually complete gap in the literature on this, so they are incredibly excited to learn how genderfluid people change their speech based on how they feel along the gender axes, consciously and subconsciously. 

To do this, Benesch will recruit five genderfluid people on campus and have them record themselves 10 times over a month when the person is feeling a particular or different gender. For example, if a person is feeling more feminine one day and masculine the next, Benesch is asking the person to record their voice both times. Along with the recording, the subjects will also take a small survey on how they were feeling at the moment they made the recording. Because everyone’s perspective on gender is different, Benesch is planning on having a discussion with the subjects before to gain a relative gauge on how the person perceives their own gender(s), in order to create scales for the survey that accurately reflect each participant’s gender(s). Benesch made it clear that they won’t be asking the subject’s assigned sex at birth. 

To analyze their data, Benesch will be comparing the genderfluid speakers’ voices to linguistic patterns that are attested in the construction of gender and seeing which linguistic forms the speakers use: ones associated with the gender they are feeling closer to or not. Benesch said that the traits they are looking at are typically subconscious, and they are interested to see how the subjects’ speech changes depending on the day. 

Benesch is helped through this process by their thesis advisor Sameer ud Dowla Khan, who is an associate professor in the linguistics department. They said that Kahn helps them stay on track and has been incredibly supportive. Kara Becker, an associate professor and sociolinguist, has also been extremely helpful throughout the process, said Benesch.

Benesch hopes to keep studying linguistics after they are done with their thesis. More specifically, they hope to teach people in underrepresented speech communities how to do linguistic work so they themselves can work along their languages. Rather than going into these communities and continuing the harms of settler colonialism, Benesch wants to empower them to do the work that they want to see in their languages. 

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