Language in Pygmalion

Pygmalion, what a funny name. Then again it is only funny to me because the language of Greek is so vastly different than the language of English. Or is it? Thousands of words in English are thought to be derived from the greek form, languages are diverse and so are the people that speak them. Pygmalion illustrates how language has the ability to mould and change us, as well as how universally shared the desire for self-discovery is. Our image of ourselves and others is shaped by the languages we speak. The crux of George Bernard Shaw’s masterwork Pygmalion is a commentary on the social and linguistic distinctions that exist within society and how language is frequently employed as a marker of class and rank. Language can symbolise many things, including our culture, values, beliefs, and social class. The play confronts our presumptions about language and addresses significant issues regarding how language affects our identities and interpersonal interactions.

The characters in the play are divided into two distinct classes based on how they use the English language. In opposed to the lower-class characters, who talk with a working-class accent and utilise colloquialisms and slang, the upper-class characters are shown as having a sophisticated vocabulary and strictly following grammar and syntax standards. In the words of lower-class flower girl Eliza Doolittle, “I ain’t dirty: I washed my face and hands afore I come, I did.” The play tackles the concept that language may be used as a tool to uphold social boundaries and perpetuate class inequalities through the character of Eliza. While Eliza confesses, “I’m a good girl, I am,” the upper-class people view her as inferior because of her lower-class accent and language. The difference in social class illustrated through language can been seen throughout the play, one particular example of the contrast between lower and higher social classes can be seen in the way Eliza and Higgins speak. Eliza speaks in a cockney accent, using slang and improper grammar, while Higgins speaks in proper Received Pronunciation. In Act 1, when Eliza first meets Higgins, their different social classes are immediately evident through their speech:

Eliza: “Garn! Don’t be so saucy. You ain’t condescending to me, are you? You’re a middle-class lark, that’s what you are.”

Higgins: “I haven’t said a word yet. What makes you think I’m a middle-class lark?”

Eliza: “You talk like one. I’m a good girl, I am.”

Higgins: “I can see that. You also have the manners of a queen.”

In this conversation, Eliza’s use of the word “saucy” and the addition of “ain’t” instead of “aren’t” betray her lower class status. Higgins, on the other hand, speaks in perfect, grammatically correct sentences, further emphasizing his higher class background and further illustrating the difference in social status.

Pygmalion serves as a reminder that language is a potent instrument that can be used to both include and exclude, and that good communication is crucial to forging deep relationships with people. The way we use language may influence our interactions and our perception of the world around us, whether we are speaking with close friends and family or complete strangers from around the world.