Is Henry Higgins (of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady fame) a good example of a sociolinguist? Explain your answer by considering what the main aims and methods of sociolinguistics are and comparing them to Henry Higgins’ statements in the play or films.
Sociolinguistics is the study of language within its social and cultural context; how people use language and for what purpose. It is concerned with finding out intimate details about an individual simply from the way they speak, enabling someone to tell within seconds the region in which the speaker grew up, their social class, their ethnicity, gender and age to name a few. In the 1938 film Pygmalion, this is how we are first introduced to the character of Henry Higgins, who claims to be able to ‘place any man within six miles…within two miles in London’. From this we can clearly see that the Professor’s character is well versed in the study of sociolinguistics and this essay aims to evaluate whether he is in fact a good example of a researcher in this field. Sociolinguists use a wide range of scientific methods to collect both qualitative and quantitative data on their subject, and as such this will be something that must be considered in relation to Professor Higgins. The most generalised aims of a sociolinguistic experiment explore the circumstances of speech; the linguistic variation of the speaker and the society they live in (i.e. exploring multiple ways of saying the same thing) and to explain how the language used by the speaker correlates to their social backgrounds. This essay will evaluate whether Higgins meets these aims and whether he uses scientific methods in order to do so, and as such, will show him to be either a good or a bad example of a sociolinguist.
The circumstances of speech are the fundamental issues that need to be understood in order to examine a section of speech, put simply: who said it, to whom, what was said, when, where, how and why. It is essential to take into account all of these variables as each one can have a massive effect on how the speech is interpreted. This links in to how sociolinguists can seemingly know everything about someone from just hearing a small fragment of their speech, such as Higgins’ seemingly amazing knowledge of everyone’s backgrounds: ‘How do you come to be up so far east? You were born in Lisson Grove’. Sociolinguists are able to perform feats such as this due to their understanding of dialectology, jargon and slang. These all have subtle differences; dialectology is associated with regional accents developing over time as a result of factors such as immigration as in the case of New Zealand. Jargon and slang can be argued as sub-sections of dialectology; jargon is specialised vocabulary whilst slang is simply a colloquialised version of the formal vocabulary. Cockney is often categorised by its use of rhyming slang, however this is not used in the film too much, instead the main examples of Eliza’s speech are fragments such as ‘dem wat pinched it’ and ‘not bloody likely’. These are seen by the upper-class people as entertaining and a new form of slang for them to use, which shows beautifully how languages and dialects can adapt and change over time.
Linguistic index is the structure which is used variably depending on the situation that the speaker is in, and is traditionally associated with particular situations. It could be argued that the Cockney accent is an Ausbau variety of English, meaning that it is an extension of the English language which has adapted to fit into its cultural contexts. For example, the Cockney accent is appropriate for a flower girl in a poor area of London, but the Received Pronunciation that Higgins teaches Eliza is used in upper class situations (e.g. at the Ambassador’s Ball that she attends close to the end of the film. Through writing this, Bernard Shaw is playing around with the idea of linguistic index, showing Higgins to have some grasp of sociolinguistics and how language must be modified in order to suit certain situations.
Perceptual dialectology is the examination of people within the society being studied, and what they perceive to be the distribution of language varieties within their own communities and how these have come into existence. This also encompasses the way that the language used by the speaker correlates to the society and community in which they live and complements the regional dialectologists’ less specific view on how people in a certain area speak. In Pygmalion we are told that Eliza is from ‘Lisson Grove’, one of the poorest areas in London at the time the play was written, and as such exemplifies the Cockney working class image. The way that Eliza speaks is described by Higgins as ‘kerbstone English…[an] incarnate insult of the English language’. This implies that Higgins does not have a solid grounding in sociolinguistics as this is a descriptive and not prescriptive subject and teaches that no dialect is fundamentally better than any other and that they are simply judged differently within society. However, the points that he makes about her having to improve her speaking are backed up even into modern times, as it has been shown a neutral (or Received Pronunciation) accent is the most advantageous in the search for top jobs, whilst Cockney accents have been associated with a lack of success by 32% of people surveyed (The Aziz Corporation, 2012). This cannot truly show Higgins to be a sociolinguist as he is too biased, but does show that he has a fundamental knowledge of the study.
Within Pygmalion there is very little reference to scientific methods being used by Higgins in order to examine and improve Eliza’s speech. He uses phonetic shorthand to record her speech in conjunction with a microphone in order to play her speech back at a later date. The microphone is concealed which leads us to believe Higgins wants to record Eliza’s authentic speech without the worry that she will subconsciously adapt it as she knows she is being recorded. He teaches her vowels and phonetics in Received Pronunciation and gives her phrases to repeat ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains’; ‘in Hampshire, Hereford and Hartford, hurricanes hardly ever happen’ and saying an extended weather phrase with marbles in her mouth. The ‘Spain’ mnemonic is in order to acclimatise Eliza to using the [eɪ] diphthong than the [aɪ] which is common in Cockney accents. The ‘Hereford’ rhyme is showing Eliza how not to drop her ‘h’s at the beginning of words, another marker of a stereotypical Cockney accent; and the test with marbles in her mouth is forcing her to over-enunciate her words, an exercise based off the experiments carried out by Demosthenes. These are not tests that sociolinguists usually employ, and are more similar to techniques employed by speech therapists. Sociolinguists are more likely to closely examine sections of recorded speech considering the speaker’s background; analyse materials in the public domain (i.e. library or archived materials) or look at ‘free-form’ discussions within the community itself. In this way, Higgins cannot accurately be named a sociolinguist and is more closely related to a speech therapist of some kind as he has carried out no investigation into Eliza’s speech community.
In conclusion, it is difficult to call Higgins a good example of a sociolinguist as he appears to fall short of this definition on almost every count. His methods are not especially scientific, the only real idea we get of his proficiency is the use of phonetic shorthand to take down Eliza’s speech and he does no investigation into the wider speech community or analysis of Eliza’s language use, opting instead to simply change it into a more well-received form of pronunciation. Higgins does not value the Cockney accent at all, citing it to be an ‘incarnate insult [to the] English language’ and seeks to eradicate it in Eliza, something it is unlikely a sociolinguist would ever seek to do. However, it is clear that some of the principles of sociolinguistics are understood by Higgins, such as the idea of language index as this is shown clearly by Shaw through Higgins’ comment about the Cockney accent. Shaw’s reference to perceptual dialectology again backs up this idea as it suggests Higgins vaguely knows what the attitudes towards the differing accents are. Whilst Higgins is clearly a highly-educated man with a fundamental knowledge of some of the principles of sociolinguistics, his work is not refined enough or carried out in such a manner as to be scientifically viable and as such, he cannot be seen as a good example of a sociolinguist.
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Hickey, R (2003). Motives for Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 214.
Kissell, J. (2004). Demosthenes’ Stones. Available: https://itotd.com/articles/319/demosthenes-stones/. Last accessed 7th March 2017.
Meyerhoff, M (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 69.
Nycz, J. (Unknown). What is Sociolinguistics?. Available: https://mlc.linguistics.georgetown.edu/about-sociolinguistics/what-is-sociolinguistics-2/ . Last accessed 7th March 2017.
Preston, D (1999). Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology. Philadelphia: John Benjamins North America.
Pygmalion (1938) Directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard [Film]. UK: General Film Distributors and USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Whitla, W (2010). The English Handbook: A Guide to Literary Studies. Oxford: Blackwells. 222.
 Nycz, J. (Unknown). What is Sociolinguistics?. Available: https://mlc.linguistics.georgetown.edu/about-sociolinguistics/what-is-sociolinguistics-2/ . Last accessed 7th March 2017.
 Pygmalion (1938) Directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard [Film]. UK: General Film Distributors and USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
 Pygmalion (Ibid.)
 Hickey, R (2003). Motives for Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 214.
 Pygmalion (Ibid.)
 Crystal, D (1992). An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
 Preston, D (1999). Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology. Philadelphia: John Benjamins North America.
 Meyerhoff, M (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 69.
 Pygmalion (Ibid.)
 Espey, N. (2012). Cockney Rhyming Slang: An Iconic Vernacular. Available: http://www.coventgardenmemories.org.uk/page_id__66.aspx. Last accessed 7th March 2017.
 Pygmalion (Ibid.)
 Alleyne, R. (2012). Neutral Accents the Best if you Want to Get Ahead. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9052562/Neutral-accents-the-best-if-you-want-to-get-ahead.html. Last accessed 7th March 2017.
 Pygmalion (Ibid.)
 Whitla, W (2010). The English Handbook: A Guide to Literary Studies. Oxford: Blackwells. 222.
 Kissell, J. (2004). Demosthenes’ Stones. Available: https://itotd.com/articles/319/demosthenes-stones/. Last accessed 7th March 2017.
 Introducing Sociolinguistics (Ibid.)