Professor Marc Muneal
27 September 2011
Pygmalion is a play written by George Bernard Shaw illustrating the effect language has on each character, from how others perceive them to what they are capable or incapable of doing in their lives. In society during that time, just as now, your accent and the way you speak can tell a great deal about your background and where you are from. But more so in the story of Pygmalion does the accent and the way they speak, grammatically speaking, highlight to which status and social class they belong as well. Each character has their own status set and roles which accompany them giving a well rounded view of how language use can effect an individual. The majority of the main characters such as Mr. Higgins, Mr. Pickering, and Mrs. Pearce are of the wealthy and more civilized social class. However Eliza Dolittle is not, she is very poor and because of this she speaks with very poor English. Throughout the play Shaw illustrates languages effects on these characters in numerous ways examples being; specifically how the characters speak to one another, how each character speaks and how the author constructs the words used, and finally the characters and their breaking of these social class norms. Living in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on which social class an individual belongs, those who are not sophisticated and speak with proper grammar were looked down upon and often treated with a lack of respect. Being as Mr. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce are of the upper class the words used during conversations had with Ms. Doolittle are generally used to speak down to her. After Mr. Higgins hands Ms. Doolittle a handkerchief to dry her eyes, Mrs. Pearce makes the comment, “It's no use talking to her like that, Mr. Higgins: she doesn't understand you, Besides, you're quite wrong: she doesn't do it that way at all [she takes the handkerchief]”(Shaw 20). Because Ms. Dolittle is poor and from such a low class, Mrs. Pearce and Mr. Higgins feel they have the right to speak to Ms. Dolittle however they would like, being as they are more educated and more wealthy than she is. They also believe that because Ms. Dolittle isn't as educated as they are that she genuinely doesn't understand what they're saying to her. Again just before Mr. Higgins explains to Ms. Dolittle the terms of their agreement as teacher and pupal Mr. Higgins says to Mr. Pickering, “How can she? She's incapable of understanding anything. Besides, do any of us understand what we are doing? If we did, would we ever do it?” (25). And again directly after Mr. Higgins explains the terms Mrs. Pearce says, “Don't answer back girl. You don' understand the gentlemen. Come with me” (25). Another example of the characters' choice of wording include the sarcasm used frequently by Mr. Higgins. Mr. Higgins is a very well educated man, and very accomplished. This influences how he speaks with those around him, and the words he chooses to use while speaking to them. It is obvious that because of Ms. Dolittle's lack of an educational background she is unable to gather that Mr. Higgins sarcastic banter is not in fact true. Therefore when Mr. Higgins tries to use sarcasm with Ms. Dolittle she doesn't understand him and gets frustrated, thinking he means everything he is saying. Not long after Ms. Dolittle's arrival, she insists to Mr. Higgins that he ask her to have a seat. Mr. Higgins follows her request by asking Mr. Pickering “Pickering: shall we ask this baggage to sit down or shall we throw her out of the window?” (18). Mr. Higgins obviously not being matter a fact when he suggested throwing Eliza out of the window, she however thought it to be true. The very choice of words a person uses can show a lot about that person, and the words used by Mr. Higgins and Ms. Dolittle show just that, whether the person is from a wealthy upbringing or a poor one, and whether they're used to being on top or on the bottom of the social class ladder. Shaw also illustrates the use of language with the characters by purposefully having Ms. Dolittle speak with very poor grammar and the other characters are speaking very proper, this distinguishes the characters and emphasizes their statuses. The author informs the readers of Ms. Dolittle's background by emphasizing her accent in the words she uses as well as incorrect grammar usage. She also often uses slang in her speech and misuses the tenses of words such a “come” for “came”. After being questioned by Mr. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce about her family Ms. Dolittle says “I aint got no mother. Her that turned me out was my sixth stepmother. But I done without them. And I'm a good girl, I am” (23). As you can tell, the author makes a point to make Eliza's speech as ungrammatical as possible in order to make it known she is the poor one in need of linguistic help. Eliza uses slang like “aint” throughout her conversations. She also uses double negatives in that sentence as well as multiple other errors. Throughout the play Shaw makes Eliza's speech grammatically incorrect, and even incomprehensible at times in order to keep the underlying connections between language and status. Shaw has illustrated what places a person in a specific social class and what the roles of that person would generally be, therefor to either purposefully break out of that assigned social class or on accident by behaving as you wouldn't expect he also shows how these perceived norms are broken. Ms. Dolittle wants very badly to be accepted and respected by the others, but she doesn't receive this because of her poor, lower class status. At several times in the play Ms. Dolittle will either say or do something in hopes that she is acting a little more refined. Unfortunately she hasn't had enough training yet so she tends to slip right back into her familiar speech pattern once her emotions get out of control In the beginning of Act 2 Eliza hadn't received any formal training yet so her speech is still that of her upbringing. However, Eliza tries to make a good impression and flaunt her small bit of new found fortune. After Eliza arrives seeking training from Mr. Higgins she tells Mrs. Pearce “Don't be so saucy. You aint heard what I come for yet. Did you tell him I come in a taxi?” (17). Ms. Dolittle is aware of the norms of upper and lower class and the roles of such, therefore she is making a point to tell Mrs. Pearce she took a taxi to see them, which is uncommon for those of the lower class. But not long after she arrives Mr. Higgins offends her and although she is trying hard to act more refined, and prove she is not just a poor flower girl, her years of upbringing emerge once she starts to get emotional. After Mr. Higgins uses some of his sarcastic wit with Ms. Dolittle she responds with “Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo! I won't be called a baggage when I've offered to pay like any lady” (18). As you can see, Eliza is trying very hard to impress Mr. Higgins and the rest but once her emotions took over she was back to the old Eliza. Just as Eliza is trying to put on a front and come across as a more refined lady, Mr. Higgins also has to make sure he is acting in gentleman like manner. As a wealthy man of the upper-class and now a teacher to Ms. Dolittle, Mr. Higgins is expected to act in a certain way. At certain moments Mrs. Pearce points out to Mr. Higgins that he needs to be careful of the way he behaves, that he is not acting as someone in his status should act. Mrs. Pearce tells Mr. Higgins that at times he has a tendency to use profanity and doesn't have the best table manners. After getting Ms. Dolittle situated she comes back to have a word with Mr. Higgins saying “[not to be put off]-but there is a certain word I must ask you not to use. The girl has just used it herself because the bath was too hot. It begins with the same letter as bath. She knows no better. She learnt it at her mother's knee. But she must not hear it from your lips” (27). Both the people in the status and those around them know of the status and the roles intended to by played by them. Ms. Dolittle knows she is from a lower class than that of Mr. Higgins, Pickering, and Mrs. Pearce therefore she tries to change the language she uses to come across as more refined. Mr. Higgins is undoubtedly a very refined man of great class, but because of his new status as a teacher he must try harder to always act in such a distinguished manner. Language is a very important role in an individual, It can offer vast opportunities if spoken properly or be a hindrance if not. It greatly affects how a person is perceived before even getting to know them. However, it is possible for a person to improve the way they speak, thus capable of changing their status as well. This is displayed throughout the play by the way a character speaks to another and also the grammatical errors or lack there of to illustrate that specific characters status and role in society. He also shows how being as those roles are evident, the characters will sometimes break the “rules” both purposefully and by accident.
Shaw, George Bernard. Exerpt from Pygalion. Course Suppliment for English 1102. Ed. Marc Muneal. 17-28.