The English have no respect for their language and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen.
–preface to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, 1916 edition.
PYGMALION was well received when it opened at His Majesty’s Theatre in London in April 1914 and cinema’s musical-version, My Fair Lady, (1964), has immortalised Shaw’s take on the Greek myth.
In a lesson for today, perhaps, as Europe edged towards war in 1914, the Press gave rather more prominence to the use of ‘a sanguinary adjective’ in the play than they did to events in the Balkans.
Eliza Doolittle’s ‘not bloody likely’ line brought the house down – with 75 seconds of laughter – and it caused a storm of debate comparable with that over Meghan Markle’s stance at the moment.
Whilst the Daily Mail was prepared only to print a reference to an ‘incarnadine adverb’ the Daily Telegraph was bold enough to pronounce that Pygmalion was ‘the jolliest stuff’.
The play should have particular resonance in our ‘woke’ times. What better way, after all, to illustrate the shallowness and superficiality of class distinction? Snobbery based on how one speaks rather than content of what one says has long been perceived as bedevilling British social attitudes.
On the other hand, if Pygmalion were written in 2020, would its ‘cultural appropriation’ of the working class lead to condemnation by our politically-correct inquisitors and witchfinders? Perhaps not. Because nowadays, rather than correcting or even banning the street slang of the likes of Eliza Doolittle, schools are being urged to embrace it.
In a paper for the journal Language in Society, Dr Ian Cushing, a linguistics expert at Brunel University, argues that: Banning language and non-standard grammar is a punitive practice which can make people feel stigmatised, discriminated against and that their language is worthless.
He rejects the notion that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of using language: I think some adults feel threatened by how kids speak, but kids having their own language is a big part of how they form identities and interact with different social groups.
He warns of ‘long-term damage’ to children if their use of language is corrected: Taking a punitive stance won’t teach good standards in any meaningful way.
I suspect that the liberal-minded socialist and very brainy G B Shaw might have taken a similar position to Dr Cushing. Nor am I unsympathetic to the context-appropriate use of street slang, dialect and, certainly not, of regional accents.
A problem arises, however, when underprivileged children are left in the employment gutter on account of their linguistic impoverishment and the fact that other boundary-bars maximising their potential are never raised.
Verbal expression matters in employment interviews and, more often than not, in job performance. Street slang works if you are Stormzy. Imitating Stormzy, though, without being Stormzy, works less well in terms of impressing those who may be determining your future.
In fairness to Dr Cushing, he admits that ‘standard English is important for job interviews or ceremonies’, but he wants schools to understand that ‘it is not necessary on an everyday basis.’ In any case, he argues, children ‘are very good at switching between very informal speech and formal depending on the context’.
This is certainly true for linguistic acrobats such as Cambridge graduate Sacha Baron Cohen – alter ego, Ali G. It is much more difficult for that 20 per cent of school-leavers who, according to employers’ organisations, are largely unemployable because of poor literacy. In the UK today, around nine million adults are functionally illiterate and many of them suffer under-employment, unemployment or destitution as a consequence.
Tens of thousands of graduates, too, lack basic skills, including literacy.
Shaw’s Pygmalion is a wonderful parody of linguistic snobbery. It also shows that no one needs to be imprisoned by street slang. The passport to personal and social progress is through good teaching.
Professor Higgins may be exploitative and cynical, but he demonstrates how easily social barriers can be demolished by teaching the young how to ‘speak proper’. Dr Cushing does not do under-privileged children any service by telling schools to nurture rather than nullify street slang. If teachers do not help these children in this regard, who will?