Movies and television are filled with scientific inaccuracies. This probably doesn’t come as news to anybody with a modicum of awareness of the real world. And, truthfully, this hardly ever bothers me. It may be inaccurate for an explosion in space to make a noise, but I actually prefer they make noise in a science-fiction movie; explosions are more fun when you can hear them. Most scientific inaccuracies are easily overlooked in the name of fun, which is after all the primary goal of entertainment media. But every so often it can also be interesting to look at what would happen, or to try and answer an unanswered question that a movie puts out there. I’m not a scientist versed in the lore of every discipline of science; I’m just a programmer. But I know enough to be able to at least look at some of these questions, and I have fun doing so on occasion. So today I’m launching a new occasional feature here, “Science Fictional”, in which I look at the odd questions that come up when you’re lying awake at night and the evening’s movie starts replaying in your mind.
Today, I’m going to take a look — or perhaps a listen — at what happens in that common fantasy and science-fiction plot, the body switch. It’s been seen in movies such as Freaky Friday, Dream a Little Dream, and Shrek the Third, and in countless television shows, particularly animated children’s fantasy series. Now, I’m not going to look at just how one character’s mind could get swapped with another character’s; that’s pretty firmly in the realm of magic, or sufficiently-advanced technology. But there’s something interesting that happens in a lot of these programs, especially the animated ones: When the character’s minds are swapped, their voices go with them. For example, if you watch Shrek the Third, Puss-in-Boots and Donkey get their minds swapped, and Donkey speaks with his own normal voice out of Puss’s body. Or, in an episode of Thundercats, Panthro and Snarf get switched, and we hear Panthro’s gruff voice coming out of Snarf’s body, and vice-versa. This is apparently done for the convenience of telling the characters apart, although in many such programs it’s clear that it’s not just the audience that hears the voice switch. In a live-action program, the actors usually use their own voices, and — if they’re good enough actors — try to pick up some of the other actor’s mannerisms. But which is actually correct? What would actually happen?
Kids, of course, take most of this just on faith, not questioning what they’re given. The knee-jerk adult reaction, after learning of countless situations where Saturday morning cartoons have lied to them, is to assume that the cartoon version is completely wrong. And this is mostly right. The general tone of your voice is not something determined by your mind, but by your body. At its most basic level, the longer your vocal cords are, the lower your voice is going to be. This can be deliberately altered (we can all momentarily pitch our voices higher or lower at will), but it takes a conscious effort to do so, and the default voice type will remain the same. You don’t get to choose how you sound.
Which is why most men don’t sound like James Earl Jones.
It’s worth digressing for a moment to note that, unless you’ve recorded your voice and played it back, you also probably don’t even know how you sound. Other people hear your voice solely through the air. You hear your own voice partly through the sound vibrations going up through your jaw and into your ear; the different material causes your voice to sound lower and more resonant than it would to an outside observer. (Which, of course, raises the question of how Mr. Jones’s voice sounds to himself. It’s a wonder he doesn’t scare himself every time he talks.) This is why many people think they’re better singers than they are; to them it actually does sound better.
So, since we know that the voice is determined by the body, we know that the animated shows get it wrong. We would never really hear Panthro’s deep rumble coming out of Snarf’s scrawny body, unless he skinned Snarf and used him as a mask. So the live-action shows, that typically have the actors sound the same as always, are the ones that get it right, right? Well, no, actually. They get it wrong as well.
See, while the voice is determined by physical characteristics, speech is determined by mental traits. Every mannerism, from the most minor vocal tic to the thickest accent, is learned behavior. We learn to speak by observing and imitating the people around us. Nobody is born with an accent, it’s acquired through being taught to speak by people who have that accent. Because we’re used to the accents of the people we’re raised among, those accents sounds “normal” to us, which is why two people from different parts of the United States will both argue that they don’t have an accent, it’s the other guy who has an accent. Accents, and any other learned mannerisms, are purely mental. Nobody pegs Clark Kent as an alien by voice because he doesn’t have a “Kryptonian” accent; he was raised by Kansas farmers, and so he would naturally have a Kansas accent. (Since nobody in Metropolis ever seems to notice Superman having the same accent, presumably he uses his “precise muscle control” — mentioned when imitating Batman’s voice in a cartoon — to hide his accent when acting as Superman, the same way he lowers his voice.)
Because the accent is learned behavior, it would travel with the mind. When Puss-in-Boots winds up in Donkey’s body, he would still speak with a Spanish accent, even if nobody’s quite sure where Spain is in relation to the land of Far Far Away. So the animated programs get that much right, even if they’re wrong about the physical vocal qualities. And the live-action programs, unless their actors are talented enough to copy each others’ mannerisms and accents, get it wrong.
So, since the body determines the tone of the voice, and the mind determines the accent and mannerisms of speech, when Donkey is switched with Puss-in-Boots, Puss should speak with Donkey’s voice but Puss’s accent, right? Well… almost. There’s one last little monkey wrench to throw into this mix.
You learn to speak with your mouth. That sounds like the most ridiculously redundant statement ever, so let me make it a bit more redundant but possibly clearer by adding emphasis: you learn to speak with your mouth. Not somebody else’s. And there are a few more physical differences than just your vocal cords. Teeth are in different positions. The shape of the mouth is different, and the shape of the tongue. And the tongue is a muscle, and like all muscles it can vary in strength; somebody else’s tongue may easily be stronger than your own (and this is one of the stranger sentences I’ve typed on this blog). This leads to a difference in responsiveness. You may never think about how you speak, any more than you think about every individual muscle movement it takes to walk, but learning to speak involves accounting for all those subtle little factors that go into controlling your mouth. Here’s the wrinkle: that’s learned behavior, so it’s mental. But it’s learned behavior that concerns the physical body. When the mind gets swapped, that learned behavior is now effectively out of date. The teeth aren’t in the right spots, the tongue doesn’t have the same degree of responsiveness, the mouth isn’t the right shape. And just as you don’t think about these things when you talk normally, a mind-swapped individual wouldn’t know how to properly compensate for all of that (unless, of course, they’re Superman with his “precise muscle control”). So their speech would wind up sounding just slightly impaired (and if the new body is a different species, it may be more than just “slightly”).
So when Snarf winds up in Panthro’s body, he shouldn’t sound like Snarf, and he shouldn’t sound like Panthro. He should sound like Panthro, imitating Snarf’s accent, while more than a little inebriated. Which, let’s face it, is probably the usual state of someone dealing with Snarf on a regular basis, so it would probably go unnoticed.