We Asked a Linguist Why Alex Turner Now Sounds Like An Old Cowboy
Alex Turner's voice now sounds like Sean Bean doing a Bill Clinton impression at gun point first thing in the morning. We wanted to know why.
It was mid-2013 when the jibes first started to surface about Alex Turner’s accent. Arctic Monkeys had just headlined the Friday night at Glastonbury, but instead of the masses rejoicing at the sight of hearing “R U Mine” blasted out from a Pyramid onto a 100,000 plus shiny faces, the biggest memory of the night was Turner’s oddball accent; which sounded a bit like Sean Bean doing a Bill Clinton impression at gun point first thing in the morning.
“What the fuck is Alex Turner’s accent man?” wrote a person on Twitter, who you don’t really know or care about, but for the purpose of this article I will present as the stern face of the general public. “He’s like Sheffield’s Elvis,” wrote another. “Is he acting like a 50s crooner for a bet?” said one more. "It's not intentional," said Turner, upon learning about the criticisms. Of course, he would say that.
Unlike Iggy Azalea, who made the tactical switch from Australian to American as a simple marketing move to engage a wider audience, Turner’s voice has continued to transmogrify and mutate in a multitude of ways, to a point where he’s now become some sort of Jones from Police Academy style variety act. One moment speaking with a South Yorkshire gruff, the next like he’s sunning on Long Beach, the next like he’s auditioning Mars Attacks!. After hearing Turner interviewed for the new Last Shadow Puppets album, Jamie Milton of DIY described his voice as, “everything and nothing all at once.” A bit like Joss Stone when she presented a Brit Award to James Morrison in 2007.
So, has Turner’s voice become some sort of surrealist audio experiment? Has he betrayed his Northern roots to sound more accessible? Or has he not changed one bit and we’re all just being thirsty because nothing else happened on the internet today?
Well, we asked British voice and accent specialist and lecturer Marina Tyndall to ask: Marina, what’s going on?
Noisey: Marina, are you an Arctic Monkeys fan?
Marina: I’m entirely Arctic Monkeys-neutral, though a fair few singers and rappers I do like exhibit the same accent-switching behaviours under discussion here. Personally, I love it when people play around with their voices and make new and amusing things come out of their mouths. Even if those things are not always planned, and are sometimes amusing for the wrong reasons. Perhaps, especially then.
First, let’s talk about Alex Turner's original accent? Starting with this video.
Well, in this clip he sounds exactly as I would expect for a young guy from Sheffield to talk. So-called ‘flat’ vowels, or flat-ish, in the OHs of ‘I suppose so’, the EHs of ‘I could play A minor’, and the OWs of ‘around’ and ‘about’. There are glottal stops in place of many final ts, and the trademark ‘hard g’ in some ng-final words such as ‘songs’. Alongside traditional Yorkshire features such as ‘mek and tek’ for ‘make and take’, we’ve got a more modern Sheffield marker with his very open OR vowel in words like ‘before’. There’s also a smattering of th-fronting - where a th slides towards a f - on ‘something to do’ and ‘two thousand and six’. I particularly like the part where he runs a whole bunch of syllables into one quick, soupy chain in ‘Idon’tknowtheanswertothat’.
Now let’s look at his infamous Brits acceptance speech. How come he sounds like an old cowboy telling stories around a campfire in the desert?
His Brits acceptance speech actually shows very little accent change within the nuts and bolts of vowels and consonants themselves. He does ‘flap’ some of his ts in phrases such as ‘in which it exists’ and ‘better than ever’, but this feature, in isolation, is not solely a North American English one - it appears in plenty of contemporary UK accents. And he could scarcely sound more Sheffield on ‘make its way back through the sludge’!
So why do we all think he’s changed so much? Am I tripping? Are we tripping? Is everyone tripping?
I think what’s shifted here is that he’s clearly adopting a meta-persona and is consciously taking the mick. Copious alcohol intake may or may not also have been involved, as is often the case at awards events. So the casual, scattergun, post-adolescent mumble of the 2006 interview has turned into a style of delivery far more lyrical, carefully articulated, and slow-paced, with a touch of faux ‘ceremony’ about it, as befits a speech that seems semi-humorous and at least partly pre-written. This change in pace and the ramping up of the diction may have the secondary effect of superficially weakening his Sheffield accent, but it certainly doesn’t take it across the Atlantic Ocean.
So what’s the reason for all this change?
Well, when you’ve spent much of your first decade of adulthood in another country, exposed to another dominant variety of English, the ‘tune’ of your voice is often the very first element to get sucked into the vortex. It’s often, in fact, the sole element, no matter how hard you’re trying, at a micro level, to hold on for dear life to your original vowels and consonants.
He isn’t just doing it because he now hates Britain and wishes he was Johnny Cash?
No, it’s called Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), and it’s a field of linguistic study which delves into the ways people change their speech when they interact with others. They do this according to where they are, who they’re with, how they’re feeling and what they’re doing. They might either morph their speech to make it more similar to that of others, but equally, heighten the pre-existing differences to convey a particular message, for example, as a verbal peacock display of power or status. A more common term, related to Communication Accommodation Theory, is code-switching. Code-switching describes how we mix and match elements of more than one language, dialect or accent to fit our immediate communication purpose.
Do you think there’s still a bit of the Northern Alex left then?
Listen to “Four Horsemen in a One-Horse Race”: He’s not even pronouncing his rs before a vowel. If I were coaching him for a US acting role, with this as our starting point, we’d still have a very long way to go.
Do you think it's an intentional change?
I doubt very much it was part of his Dr. Evil-esque public relations master plan, conceived in a ten-point strategy meeting held by his record label, ‘Adopt Weird Hybrid Accent: Break America’. Code-switching is something everyone does, nearly all of the time. The better the ‘ear’ you naturally have, the more susceptible you’ll be to picking up new sounds and absorbing them in amongst your own, whether or not that’s your conscious goal. Singers, musicians, actors and linguists are doubly likely to shape-shift according to whim, style and context; not only is doing so a key part of their professional skill-set, but the successful ones travel around a lot more, and end up amassing a bigger and bigger collection of different accents and expressions. Turner himself is said to be somewhat introverted. You could make the case that introverts are even more likely to adopt subconscious strategies for blending into the background.
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