Lisp: Social Indexing and Identity



Written by: Daniel Boyle, Edited by: Alyssa McCarthy / Lisp / April 2018

Not every lisp is the same.

Of course, there are different types: frontal, lateral, and so forth, each with their own particular sounds. Beyond that, though, what is perceived as a lisp is sometimes not a lisp at all.

The difference is that a lisp, technically, is considered a misarticulation, or functional speech disorder (FSD), affecting most commonly the “s” and “z” sounds.

Lisps typically arise in development and may be related to anatomical differences or may have no known cause.

Other commonly labelled “lisps”, however, are not developmental in nature, but instead arise later in life as a form of “social indexing”. Social indexing is “the linking of linguistic variables to social categories” (Thomas, 2011). In other words, it is a way of speaking that is similar throughout the groups with which we relate; it is how we show who we are by the way we speak. It can apply to large entities such as speakers from a particular region, gender or ethnic group, or to very small groups such as circles of friends.


Speakers “may be aware of the indexing, but they don’t have to be” (Thomas, 2010), meaning that an individual may not necessarily have conscious control of the features of speech that distinguish them from others.

The pronunciation of the “s” sound is one such example of social indexing. In English, variations in the pronunciation of “s” have arisen not as errors but as differences, and more specifically as markers of a particular social trait. For example, a sharper, more “sibilant” production of “s”  has become associated with the speech of gay men. This has led to a degree of confoundment between developmental misarticulations of “s”, which are genuine speech errors—lisps—and these other distinctive pronunciations, which are non-pathological, socially-determined variations in speech.


The lack of distinction between disorder vs. difference has lead many to associate any type of “s” variation in a male speaker with assumptions of that speaker’s sexuality. However, real lisps, as functional speech disorders, have no correlation with sexual orientation.


The social indexing phenomenon in speech applies not only to the  sibilant “s” sound, but also with use of fillers (such as “like”), vocal fry (low, creaky voice), monotone speech, “uptalk” ((question-like inflections throughout speech) or even fast speech or mumbling. These involuntary speech variations can lead to misperceptions and  inaccurate judgments of the speaker’s confidence, professionalism, personality, sexual orientation, or identity.


Fortunately, there is help. More and more, speech-language pathologists are applying their knowledge of speech assessment and treatment to non-disordered speakers and speech differences,  enabling speakers to more accurately express their identity. Speakers may learn to flexibly choose and “code switch” to match the situations in which they communicate, in order to ensure that the messages received are the ones they intended to send.


Munson, B. (2010). Variation, implied pathology, social meaning, and the ‘gay lisp’: A response to Van Borsel et al. (2009). Journal of Communication Disorders, 43(1), 1-5. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2009.07.002


Swanson, A. (2015, July 28). What it means to 'sound gay'. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from

Thomas, E. R. (2011). Sociophonetics: An introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.