Linguist No. 5: Henry Higgins, in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1912)
Henry Higgins is probably the only linguist in this series who is famous enough to need no introduction, so I’ll proceed to a few observations.
Pygmalion is a play of multivalent interest to linguists. While Shaw’s principal focus is on language as a marker of social class, the play deals with a number of linguistic issues. One of them was his interest in orthographical reform. Early in the play, he gives up trying to record Liza Doolittle’s speech accurately, pointing out that “here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.”
Henry Higgins is based on several people, but probably most of all on the phonetician Henry Sweet. In Shaw’s telling, Sweet was ironically a rather sour and bitter individual. Higgins is a specialist in phonetics. Being essentially a branch of acoustics, this is one of the more scientific branches of linguistics; the description of Higgins’ laboratory, with its various instruments, underlines this. It’s interesting to note that this play was written about the time modern linguistics was really getting started. Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics dates from this period – published in 1916, from lectures delivered a few years previously.
In today’s installment, you get two fictional linguists for the price of one, since Henry isn’t the only linguist in the play. There is also Colonel Pickering, a specialist in Indian languages. He brought to my mind the gigantic Linguistic Survey of India in 11 volumes, compiled by Sir George Grierson. Curiously, Grierson was a Dubliner like Shaw, and was only a few years older than Shaw. I don’t know if he was Shaw’s model for Pickering, but the idea is tantalizing.
As long as I’m speculating, let’s consider something else. Shaw’s antipathy to Shakespeare* is a matter of record: he once said that “it would be positively a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.” Yet one possible literary antecedent to Liza Doolittle is Caliban in The Tempest. Caliban’s retort to Prospero, “you taught me language; and my profit on 't is, I know how to curse” contains an obvious echo in Liza’s “what have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What's to become of me?” Both Caliban and Liza have been “civilized” by an outsider’s refinement of their speech, yet the result in both cases is alienation from the outsider’s way of living.
You can get elocution lessons from Shaw himself here. I wish people would talk like this nowadays. It’s interesting to note that Shaw retains his “rather pleasant Irish voice” (3:45) despite his decades-long residence in England.
*Karl Kraus said that “if Mr. Shaw attacks Shakespeare, he acts in justified self-defense.”