Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Come Higgins, be reasonable!

I watched the 1938 classic 'Pygmalion' the other day and while it was not my favorite, it did star a Leslie Howard as a surly phonetician. The movie is based on the 1913 play of the same name, by George Bernard Shaw. It was also re-adapted in film in 1964, as 'My Fair Lady', featuring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. I haven't read the play or seen 'My Fair Lady' yet, so my take on this is strictly limited to the 1938 film.

The plot of Pygmalion is as follows (from IMDB):
The snobbish & intellectual Professor of languages, Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend that he can take a London flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, from the gutters and pass her off as a society lady. However he discovers that this involves dealing with a human being with ideas of her own.

According to (a fantastic site for historical and cultural etymologies of words), the word 'Pygmalion' comes from Greek mythology, referring to a king of Cyprus who created a statue of a woman and loved it so much that the Goddess Aphrodite gave it life.

Unbeknown to many at the time I would argue, as far as linguistics goes, this movie is more about sociolinguistics than phonetics (if one had to choose). The movie is a fantastic and grotesque display of language attitudes, stemming from two progressive (at the time) but ultimately false premises:
  1. You can change your socioeconomic station by changing your language.
  2. Some dialects are bad, unrefined and/or socially undesirable.
There are some serious flaws with those ideas, but they are fascinating nonetheless, especially as represented in a 1938 film focused on socioeconomic class and language.

The movie opens with a street scene. There is a mix of dialects mingling about, all being recorded by a suspicious looking man leaning against a column taking notes. When a passerby calls him out, and a crowd forms, the man (our protagonist of sorts) rattles off quotes from his notebook and identifies all of the neighborhoods of origin of the various speakers. He is obliquely accused of some sort of sorcery, and he combats this by explaining that he is a linguist. Nobody asked how many languages he spoke.

The movie carries on outrageously from there. The man, Professor Higgins, is by today's standards, a completely insufferable, misogynistic a-hole. He is somewhat prescriptivist as well, which is a whole 'nother crime of existence. I kid, I kid. Sort of.

Anyways, the movie reveals all sorts of interesting and laughable phenomenon. The script is written with a pretty thorough understanding of the London Cockney accent, which is impressive, even though (and thankful that) attitudes about this particular dialect, and language attitudes in general, have changed somewhat. But we still have a ways to go.

There is ample material for linguists to get excited about...lot's of oral cavity drawings, familiar quotes (the rain in Spain, anyone?), and mentions of places of articulation. The style-shifting is a kick. There is a particular scene I found, um, entertaining. The student, Eliza Doolittle, is being publicly 'tested' for the first time. Her phonology is excellent and passable to the high-class company, but her lexical choices are questionable. This is passed off my Prof. Higgins as that new 'street slang'. This, apparently has high prestige. Other notable things for yourself here: Tea scene in Pygmalion.

Oh, and don't get your hopes up about the ending. It is horribly lame. As my s/o said to me while watching the 10-minute final argument scene, "Just how long is this one gonna go on?!"

In summary, it's an interesting film, full of linguistic bits to admire or pick apart. Please share your thoughts on this! Also, what are some of your favorite films about or featuring linguists?

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