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My Fair Lady: simple phonetics and pygmalion words

My Fair Lady, a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, was first performed on Broadway in 1956, and has been in performance somewhere in the world almost ever since. Telling the tale of how London phonetics professor Henry Higgins gives cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle speech lessons in order to pass her off as a duchess, this unlikely Cinderella story was made into a film in 1964, starring Rex Harrison as Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’

Higgins claims that his knowledge of ‘simple phonetics’ (a branch of linguistics concerned with the study of the nature, production, and perception of sounds of speech) allows him to deduce a person’s origins to within six miles. Within London, he says, he can place a man within two miles, ‘sometimes within two streets’. It’s this knowledge that he uses to transform Eliza Doolittle into a socially acceptable semblance of a ‘lady’. The character of Higgins is said to have been inspired by Henry Sweet (1845–1912), a great phonetician whose works, including his History of English Sounds, Ango-Saxon Reader, and the History of Language, are still staples of the study of Old English and the philology of English.

A professor of phonetics doesn’t sound like a traditional choice for a romantic hero, and the character of Higgins isn’t exactly bursting with charm. He is unsympathetic and rigorous when teaching Eliza to use standard English pronunciation: one of his methods requires the unfortunate girl to recite lines from Alfred Tennyson’s Mariana – ‘With blackest moss the flower-pots / were thickly crusted, one and all’ – with her mouth full of marbles. (Feel free to try it now with a mouth full of Maltesers or other round sweets: it’s no mean feat.) She also has to repeat the phrase ‘in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen’ in front of a device that flares when she manages to articulate her aitches instead of dropping them – something she initially only manages on ‘ever’, which of course, in standard English, does not start with an h sound (or ‘aspirate’).

‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?’

It’s not just Eliza’s aitches that come under fire. At the start of My Fair Lady, Higgins laments how badly English is spoken, in the song Why can’t the English?, and he reviles those around Soho Square for ‘dropping aitches everywhere.’ Despairing at pretty much every English accent except his own Received Pronunciation, he declares that ‘an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him: the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him’. Among the accents he feels are particularly to be censured are Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Yorkshire, and American. (So, just a few million English speakers, then.)

‘Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait …’

To his credit, Higgins does condemn the artificiality of the class distinctions brought by accents. ‘This verbal class distinction should by now be antique’, he warbles, and points out that if Colonel Pickering (a linguist from the same social stable as Higgins himself), spoke as the flower-seller did, he ‘might be selling flowers too’. However, Higgins’s solution to this social inequality, as it is presented in the song, is that everyone should learn to speak standard English (rather than, say, promoting a more inclusive society that accepts many different accents and dialects).

Sometimes it feels as though not much has changed in the century since Pygmalion was penned. Studies show that many are still prejudiced against some types of English accent – for example, a 2009 study found that around a third of people have modified their accent in order to improve their career prospects. And a study that made British newspaper headlines in 2012 found that a “neutral accent” is best if you wanted to get ahead, while estuary English and cockney were associated by 32% of poll respondents with a ‘lack of success’. On the other hand, northern accents seem to be becoming increasingly trendy and the Northern Irish accent has been voted by some as the sexiest accent in recent years, while those with so-called posh accents might find themselves mocked as harshly as those at the other end of the scale. So perhaps the tide is turning – or at least a slightly wider range of accents now appear to be accepted or reviled.

Walk? Not Pygmalion likely!

Pygmalion is cited dozens of times in the Oxford English Dictionary, which aims to provide a comprehensive historical record of English. One notable citation is for ‘bloody’ used as an intensifier, inserted between components of a collocation or phrase which are not normally separated:

Eliza: Walk! Not bloody likely.

The word ‘bloody’, used by Eliza to sensational effect in the refined upper-class company of Mrs Higgins and the Eynsford-Hills, was a shocking and surprising word to encounter on stage a hundred years ago. According to Michael Quinion, the line “created an enormous fuss, with people going to the play just to hear the forbidden word”. This led to ‘pygmalion’ being used to describe words that are regarded as mildly shocking or offensive, or language that contains swear words, as these OED examples show:

1960   Times 28 Apr. 14/5   The trouble really began when Alderman Mrs. K. Sheridan was speaking about the council fleecing tenants and used a pygmalion word.

1967   A. Wilson No Laughing Matter ii. 96   You bloody bird! No, no, Mouse, Mr Polly and I were just talking Pygmalion talk!

2002   Independent (Nexis) 2 Mar. 47   The opening scene would have been just as funny without the swearing. Of course there is room for the odd Pygmalion word.

And, in the lovely way that language can evolve and extend, the word ‘pygmalion’ can also be used as a jocular substitute for ‘bloody’, chiefly in the construction ‘not pygmalion likely’:

1914   Tenedos Times (1917) 85   They are really useless—Quite pygmalion useless.

1918   Western Electric News May 26/2   Were we downhearted? not Pygmalion likely!

1926   D. L. Sayers Clouds of Witness xiii. 247   Not Pygmalion likely! Freddy? Couldn’t write passionate letters in French to save his life.

1967   G. Fallon Rendezvous in Rio xiii. 106   ‘Are you thinking of joining in?’ ‘Not Pygmalion likely,’ Bland returned brusquely.

2004   Geelong (Austral.) Advertiser (Nexis) 24 May 36   Relax? Not Pygmalion likely! It’s all got to be done again!

Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly…

My Fair Lady is cited separately from Pygmalion a few times in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first of these is for ‘murder’ in the sense of ‘terrible harm or destruction to a thing, or to a person’s feelings, sensibilities, etc.’:

1956   A. J. Lerner My Fair Lady (1958) i. i. 8   By right she should be taken out and hung For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

But my favourite My Fair Lady quotation in the OED is for ‘loverly’, a way of rendering a cockney pronunciation of the word ‘lovely’. The citation is from the song Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?:

1956   A. J. Lerner My Fair Lady (vocal score) i. i. 16   All I want is a room somewhere; Far away from the cold night air… Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

The song is rather poignant: instead of the harsh reality of selling flowers for a pittance on the streets of London, Eliza dreams about having a room where she’s shielded from the elements, where she has chocolate to eat, coal to warm her face, hands, and feet, and the opportunity to sit ‘abso-bloomin-lutely still’. A modest dream by most people’s standards.

And if it is Eliza’s accent that has made her ‘a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every syllable she ever uttered’, as Higgins so flippantly rhymes, then it’s a harsh and unfair sentence indeed.

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