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Radio signals and royal symbols.

Language and The King’s Speech

By Stan Carey.

Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.

EMERSON’S WORDS, WRITTEN IN the 1840s to a hypothetical poet, might have been directly addressed to a man who would be king almost a century later (apart from the hissing and hooting). Colin Firth’s acclaimed performance in The King’s Speech shows a prince whose voice is in great public need, but whose lifelong stutter seems insurmountable. Far from feeling in control of his destiny, he is weighed down by a sense of deficiency and the burdens of history: his nation’s, his family’s, and his own.

Albert’s awkwardness is self-generating, feeding into a cycle of anxiety and self-recrimination. His successful recital of Shakespeare while listening to Mozart through headphones seems to result from a rare and contrived unselfconsciousness. Unable to hear his fluid performance, he assumes the worst until hearing it later it hits him and Elizabeth with the force of a waking dream. This revelation deepens the trust on which his progress depends: trust in Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who becomes his friend, and trust in his own latent vocal capabilities.

The familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how astonishing even its basic mechanics are. Breath swells from our lungs, moving up through the trachea to be shaped by vocal cords, tongue, teeth, jaws and lips and emerge from our mouths as a series of sonic pulses that spread as waves into the world around us. Ears are shaped to receive these vibrations, turn them into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain, where these “rivers of electricity” are unpacked at high speed as sounds, words, and (ideally) sense in other people’s minds.

It is an intricate system that blends physics and biology in a kind of spontaneous everyday alchemy. So much can go wrong, the wonder is that it so often doesn’t. But when we falter, and falter repeatedly, our vulnerable sense of ourselves is undermined. Language is an intimate part of our identity, and for most people it begins with speech and stays centred there. Even when we read, we speak to ourselves. To speak publicly, we must play a role: it is a performance; to do it well, we must be comfortable in the role. To speak like a king, Albert had to feel like one – and he didn’t, at least not at first.


A fragile symbol.

THE KING’S SPEECH TRIES to convey the intense pressure of addressing not just a crowd but a vast kingdom. Radio was changing everything. It is ordinary technology now, but mere decades ago it transformed the shape and scope of human communication. Goebbels recognised its revolutionary significance; all new mass media have such potential. McLuhan, in Understanding Media, wrote that radio creates “involvement in depth”, its power inhering in its “almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism”. It is found in every kitchen, car and café, and its effects are intimate, participative, and extensive.

Albert’s sympathetic listeners needed a reassuring and articulate voice from a figure of moral authority – a “symbol of national resistance”, as the end credits assure us he became. Indeed, the film can be read as a study of our relationships with symbols. We are what Terrence Deacon called the symbolic species, and our symbols can inspire fear as naturally as confidence. The film’s newsreel footage of Hitler and his followers prods our deep anxiety over the implications of fascism. We see a salute – a mere gesture, multiplied many thousandfold – and we cringe at the fragility and dark potential of our kind.

Speech – and radio – brings people together; towards what end is up to us. It can help unite a nation, or, as Orson Welles learned in 1938, it can amplify paranoia. “Is the nation ready,” Albert asked, “for two minutes of radio silence?” Before the prince’s first speech in the film, his painful pause is punctuated by the whinny of a horse. It doesn’t break the ice. Years later the prince has become a king, on paper and in his heart; and as he goes to deliver his country’s declaration of war, a dog barks, and the sound prompts a small joke. The world is made of moments of sound. Six transcendent minutes await, and he will be ready.

Stan Carey is a writer and editor from the west of Ireland. He writes about language on his blog, Sentence first, and elsewhere.

The King’s Speech on DVD for UK/EU readers.

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