Henry Higgins, Language Snob

My Fair Lady

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The classic musical My Fair Lady is on TV right now, and I am puzzling over Henry Higgins (I have shared my thoughts about the character before). If he obsesses over dialects so much, why does he hate non-standard English? Lerner and Loewe took this quirk to its extreme, as is clear from Higgins’ first musical stanza:

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters!
By right she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

No feel-good sociolinguist, Higgins! Perhaps this irony was G.B. Shaw’s point (it’s been a while since I’ve read My Fair Lady‘s source, Pygmalion), but it’s nevertheless an unsettling contradiction.

It also strikes me as unrealistic. When I think of inspirations for Higgins, English phonetician Daniel Jones naturally comes to mind. And while the younger Jones would no doubt have held attitudes  contemporary linguists would find stuffy (he revised his opinions over the years), I doubt he would have endorsed Higgins’ opinions. In The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones, authors Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mee  take Shaw to task:

The view of phonetics presented in Pygmalion is essentially that of the elocutionist working skillful transformations with “people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment” … this would have been a somewhat one-sided view of the science. By 1912, it was unfair to concentrate on a tiny area of a diverse subject and present it (even in a comedy) as virtually the total substance of the science.

In other words, Higgins made for a great Shavian protagonist, but he wasn’t necessarily representative of Edwardian phoneticians.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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3 Responses to Henry Higgins, Language Snob

  1. Ed says:

    I agree. I find that most professional linguists enjoy the diversity of accents in English [and other languages]. On the other hand, I find that many prescriptivists don’t actually know that much about the language that they are policing. An example of the in Britain would be the journalist Simon Heffer, whose book “Correct English” included a lot of rules that he had just made up (e.g. arguing that “deceased” is a pompous word) and rules that he violated himself in the process of writing.

  2. Mark says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen My Fair Lady. Is it possible that Higgins is parroting the attitudes of the upper class for ironic effect?

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