Actor Austin Butler had social media buzzing in January when he accepted a Golden Globe for his starring role in 2022’s Elvis biopic, with perplexed viewers asking, “Why does he still sound like Elvis Presley?”
In interviews, Butler – who has since earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal – has said he does not think he still sounds like the King, but admits he gets the question a lot. So is it possible?
Here, Linguistics Associate Professor Jonathan Howell explains how the Oscar nominee might have developed his idiolect – the accent of a specific person – and what it takes to adopt a new voice.
How does someone change their accent and voice?
First, there are several components to an accent, Howell says. Yes, new vocabulary pronunciation is part of it, but attention must also be paid to sentence structure and the rhythm and tone of speech.
“People are often surprised to learn that every accent comes with its own set of rules,” Howell says. “It’s not enough to just memorize a few words or phrases. Instead, you have to learn the predictable patterns, so that you can apply them even with new material.”
A dialect coach can help with this learning curve. Howell says these professionals have taken the time to notice all the different components of a dialect that a speaker typically takes for granted.
“They also find a way to explain them in an understandable way, and to develop practice materials.”
In Butler’s case, Howell says, the accent he picked up is what linguists call an idiolect.
“We each have our own constellation of different linguistic features,” Howell says. “Not everyone born in Tupelo, Mississippi – Elvis’ hometown – in 1935 sounded exactly like Elvis. He is unique!”
As for the new, lower pitch of voice? “Speakers exploit this for different scenarios,” Howell says.
Voice pitch goes up and down all the time for meaningful distinctions – such as saying something as a statement versus a question – and other situations like using a low pitch to convey authority (e.g. a parent telling their child to go to bed), or a high pitch when attempting to seem deferential (e.g. asking a supervisor for permission to work from home).
This is also a practice a voice coach can help with, Howell says. “A voice coach can help a person become more aware of their own voice, in order to manipulate it more deliberately.”
Can you permanently change your accent?
Yes, but it’ll take a lot of work.
Howell says the patterns of language that make up an accent are something we pick up naturally as a child merely by growing up in a particular speech community.
“Unlike algebra or poker, it doesn’t take any conscious effort or explicit teaching to learn your language,” he says. “By the time you hit adulthood, though, changing your language becomes much harder. Exposure to a new accent helps, but it typically takes lots of deliberate practice.”
That seems to be the case for Butler. The actor has said in interviews that to prepare for his portrayal of Elvis Presley, the singer was his only focus for three years. “I’m sure there’s just pieces of my DNA that will always be linked in that way,” he told reporters after winning the Golden Globe.
Whether or not it happened on purpose, Butler’s seemingly new voice and accent became trending topics on social media during the film’s promotional tour and award season. But why is it such a hot topic of discussion?
“We communicate a lot about our identity by the way we speak, including where we grew up, our age, our gender and racial identity, and our socioeconomic status,” Howell says. “These are all things that people have strong feelings about.”
Is this the same as the ‘Peppa Pig Effect’?
Anecdotally, some American parents noticed that their children were starting to sound more British after watching the children’s show, Peppa Pig, which is produced in the UK. It got a lot of attention early in the pandemic when kids were suddenly enjoying a lot more screen time.
Howell says word choice was the most common change; for example “telly,” “Father Christmas,” or “give it a go.”
“Austin Butler’s change takes it one step further to include pronunciation, voice quality and sentence structure.”