When I think of Sean Connery, his characteristic speech is the first thing that pops into my head (quickly followed by my favourite Sean Connery joke – what time does Sean Connery turn up at Wimbledon? Ten-ish). But has this famous /s/ always been around, or was it developed over time as he created the persona that gained him the title ‘Sexiest Man Alive’? I turned to his films to find out.
First, some definitions
There is a lot of debate on forums as to what Connery is doing when he produces his characteristic /s/ – some say it’s a lisp, others that it is a retroflex /s/, while some query whether it’s just what all Scottish people do (these people generally don’t know anyone from Scotland). However, it is actually an apical /s/ and depicted in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) thus: [s̺]. It’s created when the tongue tip or blade is raised against the back of the alveolar ridge (bumpy bit behind your teeth), thus elongating the front-cavity and lowering the resonance so that it sounds rather like sh. Sociophoneticians have noted it as a feature of male, urban, working-class Scottish speech and has been seen to be a marker of masculinity. So far, so good – Connery is from Edinburgh and had a working-class upbringing. He is also, incidentally, pretty damn masculine.
To get a good idea of his speech over the course of his life, I chose three films – Doctor No from 1962, Never Say Never Again from 1983, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from 2003. Prepared with these tools, plus too much time on my hands, I decided to do some investigating. As this research was originally for a piece of coursework, I had to write down every instance of /s/ – apical or no – and the surrounding sentence in order to get a good idea what he was doing. For the sake of speed and my own sanity, I transcribed the first 100 instances in each film. It’s safe to say I haven’t watched James Bond since.
Overall, [s̺] made up about half of instances – that is, 52.5% of his Miss Moneypenny-s were Mish Moneypenny-s. BUT, if you break it down by film, in 1962 it was only 10%, rising to 60% in the 80s and 87% by the time he played Alan Quartermain. Why did this increase occur?
Dr No was Connery’s first film – it is possible he repressed his own idiosyncrasies until he became famous, whereby he unleashed them upon the world. When he started his career, he was told to lose his Edinburgh accent as many thought it would be distracting and difficult for listeners to understand. His RP accent in Dr No may have blotted out the instances of the apical variant.
However, while this feature may have always been a part of his natural accent, I doubt whether it was as prevalent at the start of his career. For starters, Connery is famously bad at accents – his Irish accent in The Untouchables has been voted the worst of all time and in The Hunt for Red October he played a Russian with a thick Scottish brogue. If it had been as constant a feature as later in his life, he may not have disguised it to the extent he did.
It is more likely that when this feature was picked up on and praised, Connery emphasised it for his own ends and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pattern of growth suggests that its acquisition was natural – beginning in very frequent words such as yes and spreading outwards – however it is likely that its popularity acted as a catalyst.
And who can blame him? In a BBC poll, his accent came top out of all British celebrities, while the same study showed that 59% of people would change their accents if they could. Connery’s accent is definitely part of his charm and charisma and I’m glad he used it to spread the acceptance of Scottish dialects worldwide.
This post is based on research from a sociolingustics project for part of my degree. The original idea came from my boyfriend after I had dismissed all mine as too difficult or too boring