Thursday, June 23, 2011


Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion brings to light an unusual form of discrimination. Within the first five pages, speech patterns have been used to identify every class—from a lowly flower girl to an upstanding gentleman. The syntax, pronunciation, and word choice of each character serve to divulge their upbringing. The character Henry Higgins claims even the most intelligent and lucky people cannot disguise their inherited class standing without strict tutoring on speech patterns. He claims, “This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with [80 pounds??] a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths” (page 1013). For Higgins, people cannot change their social class without a change in dialect.

This requirement is remarkably similar today. While we may not be born into strict classes, children from wealthier families generally have better educational experiences. In the area I grew up in, you could listen to dropped vowels, mispronunciation, and use of slang to determine whether someone was native to Georgia, grew up in the city, or lived in the projects. I think there are probably more exceptions to Higgins’ rules today given the availability of education and the wide variety of people who make up each “class”.

However, I disagree with Higgins’ observation that people without the “proper” speech patterns are useless. He states, “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon” (page 1013). His point here seems to be that everyone should speak to the best of their abilities. He sees English as a language of brilliant and wondrous possibilities. He mentions Shakespeare, Milton, and The Bible as examples of amazing works created in the English language. It seems as if the “disgusting” syllables Liza uses offend him. She makes no attempt to follow these great authors, and Higgins appears to view Liza’s speech as if it dishonors those works. He seems to expect people ought to work to speak as well as possible.

As admirable as that goal may be, I do not think correct pronunciation is of the upmost importance. For people like Liza who are born in disadvantaged circumstances, the focus is and should be on survival. Liza cannot eat and pay the rent without selling her flowers each day. In poor areas all over the world are people who work all day long just to feed their families. Time taken for lessons in proper speech detracts from any earnings the person may receive.

How do you decide what language is to the proper one to use? I find that many of the languages I am unfamiliar with have harsh and unpleasant sounds. What right does Higgins have to determine which language is best? To me, he values unreasonable priorities for poorer citizens and perpetuates the language stereotype by classifying people according to their accents.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah,

    Very interesting exploration of and commentary on Shaw's play, and specifically the issue of accents and dialects. While I agree with you that Higgins overstates his point by claiming that people who don't speak proper English have no right to exist, he is correct that our society does judge people by their accents and diction. Whether such assumptions are correct or not, they occur. But Higgins's experiment on Eliza focuses only on appearance by teaching her to pass for a lady, and the unfortunate result of it is that she speaks too well to function as a street seller of flowers, but lacks the money and training to do much else. The target of this play seems to be society as a whole, and not just accents. God post!