William Shatner is known for many things — his iconic portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk, his wacky Priceline commercials, his interesting musical career, and his role on Boston Legal, which earned him two Emmys. He’s also known for his signature style of speaking. His combination of slow cadence, frequent pauses, and staccato enunciation is so distinctive that it’s become a topic of frequent conversation and even more speculation.
The question oft asked is whether his signature style is fake, a sort of character he always embodies in his acting, or if it’s authentically the way that Shatner speaks. Over the years, Shatner has given multiple different explanations but has never settled on one definitive answer.
So, fans are left to reach their own conclusions from the information he’s given. Here’s what Shatner has said about his signature way of talking.
He Couldn’t Remember His Lines
Questions about his signature speech-style are frequent at fan conventions, like the one shown in the video above. When he got the question this time, Shatner explained that he delivered his Captain Kirk lines with so many pauses because he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say.
He told the audience that they were shooting episodes at such a breakneck pace that he was never able to memorize his lines before he hit the set. So, he joked that the long pauses were just an indication that he was struggling to remember what to say next.
Shatner said something similar in an interview with The AV Club in 2003.
In fact, it was Shatner’s awe and wonderment as to what the next line was, but it came out as Kirk’s, as the character’s hesitation in describing what it was he was going to say or do, because it was so exciting. It was so filled with the energy of what it was he was doing.
Shatner went on to say that when he had to become Kirk again for the movies, years later, he had to go back and watch old episodes to find Kirk’s speaking voice. He explained that the cadence and pauses that had been the result of his hesitancy on set, became part of Kirk’s character. So, even though he no longer had trouble memorizing his lines, he kept the signature speaking style because he felt it belonged to Kirk.
He Wasn’t Aware of his Signature Style
However, Shatner has also said that his unique way of speaking was just something he did naturally. In an interview with Inverse in 2018, Shatner insisted that he wasn’t even aware of his interesting vocal patterns. He pointed out that when someone has a particular thing they do when speaking, they often don’t realize that it’s different because it’s just part of the way they talk.
Shatner went on to say that when he sees people imitate his signature speech style, he doesn’t immediately understand that they’re imitating him. He insisted that he’s so unaware of his particular style that he doesn’t recognize it when others do it.
He said something similar in his 2003 interview with The AV Club. He mentioned not being able to recognize when people were impersonating him, then called each person’s speech style to their own personal “music.” He suggested that he was surrounded by his own style so often that it was ubiquitous.
He Did it for Dramatic Effect
Though the previous explanations indicate that Shatner’s speaking style wasn’t cultivated, he’s also said that it was a conscious decision. In an interview with The New York Post about his days as a stage actor, Shatner admitted that he’d developed the interesting way of delivering his lines as a technique for keeping audiences enthralled in his performances. According to that interview, he carried this style developed on the stage into his performance of Kirk.
Shatner plainly admitted that his style was deliberate in an interview with The Washington Post in 2001. During his first stage production, he noticed that audience members always started to leave after intermission. So, he began delivering his lines in an overdramatic, emphasized way to catch the audience’s attention. Apparently, it worked. The audiences stayed and Shatner found a signature style that differentiated him from other actors.
Shatner summed up the origin of his style in a quip given in an interview with ABC News.
“Theoretically, it’s dramatic. Did you receive that information? Hang on a second. Here. Comes. Another.”
He Doesn’t Actually Talk That Way
Listening to Shatner speak when he’s just chatting, one on one, it’s immediately apparent that he doesn’t actually speak with his “signature” cadence. Though his pauses are frequent, they’re thoughtful pauses. They don’t seem to be delivered with the intent of making an impact. His speech style in regular conversation certainly isn’t the exaggerated, dramatic style he’s become known for.
In several interviews, like the ones previously referenced, he’s insisted that his signature style isn’t how he actually talks. His recorded interviews seem to support that assertion.
So, what’s the truth behind Shatnerspeak? Did it develop by accident because he couldn’t remember his lines? It is an intentional style he cultivated to capture the attention of his numerous audiences? Is it an unconscious quirk?
Unless Shatner clarifies all the differing statements he’s made about Shatnerspeak’s origins, fans will likely never know.