When Capaldi stepped into the starring role in Doctor Who, his predecessor Matt Smith left him a time-travelling blue box, a sonic screwdriver and a companion. But Capaldi’s Doctor arrived with something entirely new – a Scottish accent.
“I am Scottish, I have gone Scottish,” Capaldi’s Doctor announced in the first episode of the new season, excitedly adding, “I can complain about things!”
While the 12th Doctor may have been thrilled about his development, it turns out that some of the show’s fans are not. As Capaldi made his debut, the internet’s complaint registry (aka Twitter) was quickly filled with the grumbles of fans struggling to understand the new Doctor’s new accent.
“I need subtitles while watching Doctor Who, I cannot understand Capaldi’s accent,” said one Tweeter. “Can’t understand the show anymore without closed captions,” added another. And a third: “First noticeable downside of Capaldi: my dad can’t understand his Scottish accent so he rewinds every two minutes.”
Glasgow-born Capaldi is the 12th actor to play the last of the Time Lords, and while he’s not the first Scotsman in the role (David Tennant is also Scottish), he is the first to use his Glaswegian accent. While the show’s producer and writer Steven Moffat is excited about the change, saying, “Let’s face it: Scottish accents are sexier,” many fans are not pleased. Said one audience member, “He should be called ‘Doctor What?’”
While it would be easy to ascribe this challenge on the show’s growing American fan base, which may not be used to Scottish accents, it’s not just Americans who are struggling to understand Capaldi.
“Had to resort to putting the subtitles on to understand half the drivel being mumbled in new Doctor Who,” chimed in one UK tweeter. “It took so long to understand Tennant & Matt’s fast British accent & just when I understood they bring Capaldi’s fast Scottish accent!” griped another.
Kelsie Withey, a resident of Buffalo, New York, who complained on Twitter about having to watch the show with closed captioning, noted in an email, “I don’t think it’s necessarily because Peter Capaldi is Scottish – he just talks really fast and doesn’t enunciate properly.”
The experts agree.
“I do not believe it is purely the accent that is throwing off the American audience,” said Patricia Fletcher, a Manhattan-based voice, speech and dialect coach who counts Harvey Keitel and Lynn Redgrave among her clients.
“The actor often speaks very quickly, with a staccato rhythm and without enough attention to articulating through to the end of his thought/line,” she added. “This does promote a character choice of Doctor Who being sharp and quick-thinking, but does not help us understand what the Doctor is actually saying/thinking.”
Linguistics expert Prof David Crystal concurs. “There was the odd moment when I struggled to hear exactly what he was saying, so I don’t think this is exclusively a US problem.” Crystal, an internationally noted expert and the author of over 120 books, including the forthcoming You Say Potato on the subject of accents, said that in Capaldi’s case, “It’s not just a matter of accent: speed of speech and volume are factors too, especially when there’s a lot of background noise.” Crystal also pointed out that the need to use subtitles for Scottish accents it not completely far-fetched. “A mild Scots accent seems to cause no problem (think Sean Connery), but broad accents may need subtitling (as in Trainspotting).”
While Capaldi is entitled to speak as quickly as he wants in his natural accent, Fletcher did have some tips for the actor if he wants to make his speech easier to understand for audiences around the globe. “My advice: breathe. Slow down a bit. Make sure the lines are articulated through to the end,” said Fletcher.
Ironically, the episode that seemed to generate the most tweets was titled Deep Breath.