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Furman alum studies what listeners perceive as ‘gay speech’

Professor of Asian Studies and History Savita Nair and Travis Evans-Sago ’09 spoke during his March talk, 'Do You Hear Gay?'

Travis Evans-Sago ’09 knew as soon as he started speaking in McEachern Lecture Hall many people in the audience would rightly conclude he’s gay. How they were able to do that was the subject of his recent talk “Do You Hear ‘Gay?’”

“The focus was not really on that gay people speak a certain way, because the research shows that we really don’t,” Evans-Sago said. “It’s what listeners perceive as gay speech that may be more interesting, because across cultures we’re not sure if there is a universal pitch, for example … It’s not that we hear something differently. It’s that we’re associating different meaning to different parts of speech. A big research question is, ‘What part about that is universal, and what about that is specific to a language or a region or a group of people?’”

A capacity crowd of students was on hand to hear the talk by Travis Evans-Sago ’09.

Evans-Sago double-majored in Spanish and Asian studies at Furman and is currently completing a Ph.D. program in Hispanic linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington. He became interested in trying to answer that question while living in a bilingual Spanish-French community in France.

“I spoke Spanish better than I did French, so I gravitated toward the Spanish people,” he said. “These bilinguals said, ‘You know, when you speak Spanish, you speak Spanish like a woman. But when you speak French, you speak French like a man.’ So that got me interested in how I can sound like a woman in one language and sound like a man in another. What do they hear that makes them think that I sound gay in one language and don’t sound gay in another?”

Evans-Sago, a native of Camden, South Carolina, was asked to discuss his research at Furman by Professor of Asian Studies and History Savita Nair, who also moderated the presentation. The talk was sponsored by the Furman Pride Alliance and the Asian studies and modern languages and literatures departments.

Nair was Evans-Sago’s advisor.

“I loved Furman. It was honestly some of the best years of my life,” said Evans-Sago, who holds a master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College and a master’s degree in Hispanic linguistics from IU. “I really learned how to question a lot of the common things that I hear … My questions started at Furman.”

Evans-Sago’s work has been published in “The Routledge Handbook of Spanish Language Teaching” and the Journal of Ibero-Romance Creoles. Another message he tried to get across to the students in attendance was the value of and reason for research.

“What I’m trying to do is show undergraduate students that when we do research we don’t always have it right, but we still research,” he said. “And we find our questions, and we get better at answering questions. I think that’s the biggest point of my talk, that research isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s piece-by-piece.”


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