The king’s speech impediment

Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech demonstrates the vital importance of the human voice in establishing and maintaining power. If you can’t get the words out then you will never assert authority. This moving film about King George VI and his attempts to deal with a stammer is also about the relationship between a father and a son, a relationship that exercises proponents of Freudian psychoanalysis and cultural theory. Problems about “the voice of the father” are the mainstay of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, explained, explored and worried over by philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

Two stamps, George VI, 2d each, AustraliaFrom a different angle, film Theorist Michel Chion has conducted a careful analysis of the different aspects of the voice in cinema. He emphasises how the curiosity of an audience is aroused by hearing the voice but not yet being able to see its source, as in the voice-over in a documentary, or the voice that originates from outside the frame of view. There are also those pregnant silences filled in by our imaginations, and by what precedes and what follows the silence.

For Chion, silent film was not without voice, but contained many voices, the voices conferred on the actors by the audience. As a good bit of cinema The King’s Speech presents artfully the human voice, and even the absence of voice. There is potency in the king’s silences in the lecture hall, racecourse and over the radio as he forces out the words in spite of an unobliging vocal apparatus.

One of the key capabilities of the human voice is to repeat itself, to repeat others, to mimic, and simply to repeat sounds over and over in rhythmic patterns. The insistent practice of vocal exercises demonstrates our faith in repetition. Repetition is also built into the stammer in the first place: the faltering attempts at delivering the “p” sound in the word “people” results in staccato breaths and involuntary contractions, before the required sound is released.

Of equal but less obvious interest is what the film says about the role of the human voice in constructing and modulating space. How do we translate the influence of the voice outside of the cinema and into everyday spaces? — the architecture of the voice.

Repetition is central to understanding the voice in space. The design, organisation, control and experience of space is permeated by repetition. The arrangement of columns in a building, organisational grids and the deployment of measuring systems all point to repetition, without which it seems space cannot be managed.

In so far as the voice repeats, it is caught up in these instruments of spatial organisation. Evident from the vocalisations of protesters, football crowds, market sellers and street vendors it’s apparent that people claim space by chanting, ie repeating, over and over, the same phrases, words, syllables. In many cases it matters less what is actually being said or that it can be understood than that something is being said, and repetitively, a basic way of staking out territory shared throughout the animal kingdom.

The way that vocal repetition works in spaces is clearly a subtle process. The voice is time-bound and transient. As in a busy marketplace, there may be many voices, each competing, and with their own rhythms. Space as defined by the voice is not as easily controlled and managed as the disposition of repeating columns, steps and windows. The voice is part of a spatial “sub-architecture,” that must be taken into account, and that interacts with the hard materials that define conventional architectural space.

The King’s Speech demonstrates something of this subtle interplay between architectural space and the space of the voice. The use of public address systems and radio clearly expand architectural space, particularly public spaces, otherwise constrained by the reach of the voice. Thanks to broadcast technologies the King can deliver his famous war speech while in a sound studio separated from his immediate audience by solid walls, and from people’s living rooms by many miles.

Then there’s the rhythm and flow of his voice that brings people closer and into a space over which he has command. This contrasts with the gap that opens between speaker and audience when the flow is impeded.  Generally construed as acute embarrassment, this aural space of anticipation and frustration, the inability to speak, to repeat, presents as a chasm. If only we could disappear into this space. Such is the sovereignty of speech, and its lack.


  • Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Trans. C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Chion, Michel. 1999. The Voice in Cinema. Trans. C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press. First published in French in 1982.
  • Coyne, Richard. 2010. The Tuning of Place: Sociable Spaces and Pervasive Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. 1991. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


  1. ddmcandice says:

    Cool! I really appreciate the idea to talk about voice related with space and architecture. I’ve seen the film “The King’s Speech”, but I just perceive the importance of the speaking ability, especially for authority. This paragraph really provides me a new understanding for the film and gives more weight to the design of architecture. When it comes to the repetition of voice, that remind me of my mother and teachers. Even though sometimes we feel theirs words are too bothersome to hear, someday you will find theirs words have been born in your mind somehow when the words are useful. Furthermore, I can’t agree more on the viewpoint of Choin, that is “silent film was not without voice, but contained many voices, the voices conferred on the actors by the audience.” This opinion remind me of a typical actor, Chaplin and his films. Sometimes voice may destroy the atmosphere or interfere with the interaction between audience and presenters. In spite of this, the power of voice still can’t be ignored but the exposure of its power is always based on some requirements and constraints.

  2. To quote Walter Murch:
    “Since human beings are what we are – the talking animal – dialogue has a permanence in film that it shares with opera and theatre – if you donʼt understand what is being said, you are taken out of the moment”

    A lot of this is true in real life. Our ears have been constructed to be more sensitive to the human voice and our minds can quickly pick out a voice amongst other sounds. We automatically try and locate a voice and contextualise it. We have always communicated with our voices and nothing in these thousands of years has changed that.

    From the perspective of the film, and the life of King George VI, it is a story of a man who had power thrusted on him. This was before the invention of the television, internet and wide spread publishing. The radio was the primary source of news. And, for the monarchy, it was the primary tool to connect with the people. The voice obviously became a symbol of power and one the people could trust and have faith in.

    Much of this is seen today too. A good orator can sway an audience and change their minds (every Apple Keynote by Steve Jobs was watched by thousands all over the world online). As human beings we look for people to believe in and follow. We look for role models. The voice is a reflection of a person’s personality.

    Chion calls cinema ‘vococentric’ – the soundtrack revolves around the voice. This is not just true in Cinema, but everyday life.

  3. Chen Xi says:

    There are many films which are based on telling a voice story and The King’s Speech is one of them. I used to learn film art before I came here. Actually, I always focus on shots and voice of films when I first see them. One of key developments of film industry is that people filmed with voice instead of without voice. That is a significant progress of film industry. The importance of voice is equally to frames of films. It is not only in films, but also in real life. Frames in films seem like the views what people see and conversations seem like voices in the film as well. Moreover, voice reflect the personalities of human beings.As it was shown in The King’s Speech, through the practise repetitively, George VI showed his personality of firm and repect finally by give a radio adress.

  4. Kaikangwol says:

    The topic of constructing and modulating space by voice is very interesting. The example of King’s speech is reminded me to one of Thai horror movies called phobia2. About two years ago this movie was succeeded in term of income and criticism in Thailand and other countries in Asia. The movie consist of 5 short horror stories by each one talk about the belief in myth, ghost, retribution, and religion (obviously Buddhism and spiritualism) in Thai culture except of the third story is rather blended to science (about death people became Zombie after overdosing cocaine).

    I would like to talk about the first story called Loa-cha-on. It is not direct to about the character of voice but about the use of speech to represent spaces. It is interesting story about the old folk belief, culture and myth but the marketing of movie itself aim for spectators from teenager to middle age and especially in capital where those belief began to fade and defeat by the modernization. However the movie tell us (Thai) that the space of legend and ancient belief still exists in somewhere far away where the unusual things can happen in every day life.

    This story uses voice to represent space in many aspects. The space of reality and myth is blended to together to represent the problems in our society. The story is about teenage gangster and folklore about ghost and life after death, which, nowadays, is fading away from our society and daily life especially for new generation people. And also, the story implies about the social space in family.

    The space in the family institution, in the movie, the first sentence that the son says to his mother is “you are slut, dad say you are slut so that why you ran off to be with that guy” The voice illustrates the distance in relationship between mother, father and son. The space between son and his mother is divided and snatched by “that guy”. He thinks that his mother never loved him and did not want to be with him.

    Sacred and hunted space, in Thai Buddhism culture, the space of monk and common people is distinctly separated. There are different in many aspects such as the way of life, rule, belief, culture and space (house and temple). The new life of the boy begins after he becomes a monk and has to live in the temple. The elderly monk tell the young monk about the story of hungry ghost ritual. The ritual is about how they make an offering to the hungry ghost. And said that “people around here are superstitious” but the young monk do not believe that.

    In my opinion, this illustrates how the monk’s voice constructs and modulates the new space for the narrative and how the voice prepare, indicate and lead audience into the narrative space. After this the young monk and audience are transferred into the superstitious space where unusual things from the myth can happen like usual. Audience and the young monk can hear the sound of ghost whisper, see the real hungry ghost and experience many horrible things.

    In the climax scene, the senior monk said about the cave that they use for praying, meditation and pondering about any wrong doing that they have done. Then he asks the young monk to stay there alone, sit and pray in the holy space which is made by holy thread as many of Thai Buddhism believe that charm, holy thread or statue of Buddha can protects them from danger or evil. And he warns him to remain his conscious and prepare for something that is going to happen and something that he is going to see, they are exist but not real.
    In my opinion, this dialogue imply the existence and participation of two spaces; superstitious and realistic space

    In the end, the young monk run away from the cave to the forest, he phone his mother and say apologize to her but too late the sin that he has made is serious than anyone else can help. He is changing to a hungry ghost while try to apologize to his mother, unfortunately the sound that his mother heard is not a human voice but the hungry ghost voice.

    Hear, the treble moan voice in telephone represent the distant between the young monk and mother. Two spaces are negated from each other as they are not in the same world.

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