Published: April 19, 2019

An actor charged with the job of believably capturing another person's idiolect is undertaking something enormous. But when that person has a legacy like Freddie Mercury's, the task may seem almost unsurmountable.

By Sophia Six
Course: Language Sound Structures (Ling 3100)
Advisor: Prof. Rebecca Scarborough
LURA 2019

In this research project for the course Language Sound Structures, I studied the difference in Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury’s idiolect (his personal habits of speech) compared to the accent actor Rami Malek uses in his impersonation of Mercury in the recent award-winning biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddie Mercury had a London accent subtly influenced by his Parsi background, whereas Malek grew up speaking a Southern Californian dialect, which currently seems to not be notably influenced by his Egyptian heritage. Malek also had to learn to speak with prosthetic teeth for the role, as Mercury was born with two extra sets of incisors. Malek does a spectacular job of taking on the character of Mercury and impersonating his style of speech, but I hypothesized that there would be subtle differences in vowel quality due to the different origin of each man. Freddie Mercury spoke very rapidly and casually, slurring many of his words together. Malek, on the other hand, had to speak very carefully throughout the film in order to navigate the unfamiliar prosthetic teeth while attempting to mimic an equally unfamiliar London accent (and probably did not prioritize including too many Parsi-influenced phonetic details). It is for this reason that I expected him to produce vowels in a more open-mouth or low-tongue position than Mercury, who often raised or deleted vowels entirely in his natural speech.

In order to go about testing my hypothesis, I gathered clips from the movie of Malek’s speech, made a list of 169 unique words he spoke, and tried to find instances in which Freddie Mercury spoke the same words in his interview clips. After making as many matches as I could and then narrowing down the data for clarity, sound quality, and expected usefulness, as well as ensuring I had sufficient samples of every English-occurring vowel, I ultimately came up with 34 good clips of word pairs being clearly enunciated by both speakers. From there, I could compare the two words by listening, but also by looking at a visual representation of the data in the form of a waveform and a spectrogram. For example, the word ‘play’:

rami malek playfreddie mercury play

The upper graph in the data is a waveform, showing the intensity of sound as it changes over time. The lower graph is a spectrogram, a more complex illustration of amplitude, frequency, and time. Marked on the graphs in red, you will see ‘F1’ and ‘F2’, which refer to formants—peaks in the sound amplitude at certain frequencies—illustrated as darker areas on the graph. This data can tell us a lot about vowel quality, which results from where in the mouth the tongue is positioned while it is being produced. During a lower, more open tongue position, F1 will appear higher on the spectrogram. A fronted vowel will show F2 higher, or further away from F1.

We can see in the data that in Rami Malek’s speech, although it is subtle, F1 is slightly higher compared to F1 in Freddie Mercury’s example, so he is producing a slightly more open vowel. Most notably, you can see from the higher F2 that Mercury’s vowel is much more fronted and becomes increasingly so over the course of the vowel’s production. This points to a diphthong that was not present in Malek’s speech.

When listening to the sound files, the difference in diphthongization of the vowel is truly striking. Malek produces something close to [pl̥ɛ], the /ɛ/ sound being similar to the vowel produced in ‘bed’. His vowel is more relaxed and his mouth remains open; you can hear the “softness” of it in the clip as he trails off.

 Rami "Play"

Mercury, on the other hand, produces a very clear diphthong in [pl̥eɪ], the /eɪ/ being what you would hear in ‘gate’. He starts his vowel with his tongue in a central position, moving more to a higher, closed-mouth position with the progression of the sound. His sound is much more tense overall.

 Freddie "Play"

While I am not an accent expert, this distinction was very surprising to me, as I would have expected to hear a tense diphthong like that from a speaker with an American dialect like Malek, as it is exactly the way I would produce the word in my own accent, but I would not expect it in a natural London dialect. This led me to believe that there are more details in Mercury’s speech than I thought that are influenced by either his Parsi background or possibly by his time spent in America on tour.

Using this process of examination, I found that there were a few instances where Malek produced a more open vowel than Mercury would, as I had hypothesized, but ultimately, the examples were much fewer than I expected. In the 34 clips I chose, only 10 had a difference in pronunciation, 6 of those differences occurring on the vowel. Often, the difference in vowel quality was a more open vowel from Malek, as my hypothesis predicted, but overall he did a very good job imitating Mercury’s speech in his vowel production. For the most part, the two speakers were completely indistinguishable.

There were, however, some subtle features I discovered during my research besides the vowel contrast details I was looking for. For instance, Mercury sometimes had “creakiness” in his voice that Malek usually did not. I think this feature was a sort of style choice based on the context; for instance, when he punctuated a phrase with ‘darling,’ as he was wont to do, the intentional drop in pitch and subtle vocal fry perhaps sounded a bit more “cheeky.” He also spoke very quickly and casually, often significantly slurring his words, which led to many more deleted or raised vowels than Malek, who, very reasonably, spoke much more slowly and carefully in order to navigate the unfamiliar accent and prosthetics for the film. When he spoke quickly in this way, you could sometimes hear some retroflexed consonants sneak into his speech here and there, clearly artifacts from his Parsi upbringing.

As for Malek, the most interesting discovery I made about his speech was that he almost never deviated from a good and believable London accent, bringing none of his American dialect or personal idiolect details into the mix, but he did not attempt to imitate every subtle detail present in Mercury’s idiolect. While studying the unique details of Mercury’s idiolect was interesting in a multitude of ways, the strategies and motivations actors employ when portraying another famous or meaningful individual vary, and sometimes the detailed idiosyncrasies of a particular idiolect have to be sacrificed in favor of different mannerisms in order to carry the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Rami Malek did an excellent job taking on the challenge of embodying Freddie Mercury, through his motion, his mannerisms, his style, and perhaps in some ways most importantly, his unique voice.