Did Alan Turing stutter?
- Category: Personal Commentary
- Published: Tuesday, 06 January 2015 17:58
- Written by Lisa Wilder
You may have seen the recent movie, The Imitation Game, about British mathematician Alan Turing. During the Second World War he devised a machine, much like a computer, to break the encrypted "Enigma" code used by the Germans for communication. This gave the Allies a secret advantage and the ability to end the war much earlier than otherwise possible. Turing was not publicly credited for this during his lifetime.
Alan Turing is a fascinating figure who has been depicted in books, stage plays and two movies. Although there is no recording of his voice in existence, it is well known that he had a stutter since childhood, although accounts differ as to its nature and severity.
To prepare for his role in The Imitation Game actor Benedict Cumberbatch learned what he could of Turing’s voice and speech patterns from reports by those who knew him. The actor blocks just occasionally in scenes where Turing is under high stress, such as when his commanding officer bursts into his lab and tries to dismantle the machine. In the video below Cumberbatch explains how he approached Turing's speech.
In the 1980s, the actor Derek Jacobi also portrayed Turing both on stage and in a BBC television production. His version of Turing stutters more than Cumberbatch’s, perhaps because Jacobi had incorporated extensive stuttering into a previous performance as the Roman Emperor Claudius in the famous production I,Claudius.
According to Andrew Hodges’ biography of him, Turing had a "shy, hesitant and high-pitched voice, not exactly stuttering, but hesitating, as if waiting for some laborious process to translate his thoughts into human speech".
In another recent biography, Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age, B. Jack Copeland writes about his peculiar speech, "This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly."
Yet his own sister, Sara Turing, in her biography, writes “he had that painful stutter”, but she notes he did not stutter when reading from a script. Whatever the extent of his speech deficit, nobody, it seems, observed him being perplexed by it. Sara quotes a friend saying “Alan had the most uninhibited stammer I have ever heard.”
Turing was not self conscious about his speech. Indeed, it was the least of his problems. The brilliant scientist was a gay man in a society where homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration. Forbidden to speak of the top secret work he did on the Enigma code, Alan Turing was rewarded for his loyal service with humiliation and torment, as he was forced to undergo debilitating hormone therapy to “cure” himself. He committed suicide in 1954. Today he is credited with being one of the pioneers of the computer age.
Descriptions of how Turing has been depicted here
People who knew and worked with him talk about him here