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Language and Speech Theme Analysis

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Language and Speech Theme Icon
Appearance and Identity Theme Icon
Social Class and Manners Theme Icon
Education and Intelligence Theme Icon
Femininity and Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Language and Speech Theme Icon

Shaw's play explores aspects of language in a variety of ways. Higgins and Pickering study linguistics and phonetics, taking note of how people from different backgrounds speak differently. In Act Three, we see the importance of proper small talk in a social situation. And the play also reveals some of the powers of language: Eliza's transformation is spurred simply by Pickering calling her by the name Miss Doolittle, while Higgins' insults and coarse language, which severely hurt Eliza's feelings, show the potential violence of language. The play is most interested, though, in the connections between a person's speech and his or her identity. As we see in the beginning of the play, Higgins can easily guess where people are from based on their accent, dialect, and use of particular slang. How different people speak the same language thus reveals a surprising amount about their identity. However, Shaw also exposes how shallow and imprecise this conception of identity is, how it doesn't actually capture or represent the full person. After all, Eliza's way of speaking transforms over the course of the play. Eliza is able to change her identity simply by learning to talk differently.

In particular, Pygmalion continually displays the connections between language and social class. In the opening scene, we see people from different social strata speaking in vastly different dialects, and Mrs. Eysnford Hill is confused when Eliza calls her son Freddy, not realizing that this is merely a kind of lower-class slang. And most importantly, by changing her habits of speech, Eliza is able to fool people into thinking that she is from an upper-class background. Upper-class characters in the play lay claim to proper or correct English. Higgins, for example, shames Eliza for speaking a poor version of the language of the great writers Shakespeare and Milton. But is there anything inherently correct about one particular version of English? At Mrs. Higgins' home, Mrs. Eynsford Hill mistakenly believes that Eliza's lower-class slang is a new, fashionable form of small talk. There is thus nothing naturally wrong or improper about Eliza's original way of speaking. Rather, language, accents, and slang are all simply habits that people learn to associate with different backgrounds and social classes. The wealthier social classes simply claim that theirs is the right way to speak. While this oppresses and disadvantages lower-class people, the play shows how this system also opens up possibilities for those clever enough to exploit this connection between speech and class. Eliza, Pickering, and Higgins are, after all, able to use this to their advantage, fooling high society and successfully passing Eliza off as a noble lady.

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Language and Speech ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Language and Speech appears in each act of Pygmalion. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Language and Speech Quotes in Pygmalion

Below you will find the important quotes in Pygmalion related to the theme of Language and Speech.
Act 1 Quotes

And how are all your people down at Selsey?
Who told you my people come from Selsey?

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Bystander
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Higgins impresses everyone in the crowd by showing off his skills as a linguist, particularly in his recognition of English dialects. In this quote, he correctly identifies that a bystander is from Selsey, an English seaside town, just by hearing the way he talks.

In this instance, Higgins, an educated, wealthy, and supremely talented linguist uses his skills not only to qualify his reasoning for writing down Eliza's speech, but also to assert his superiority. Higgins believes that his education, wealth, and wit mean that he is intrinsically superior to the lower classes, and he is eager to cleverly assert his dominance over them any way he can. By catching people off guard by naming where they are from simply by their speech, he essentially tells these people that he knows who they are and what their entire background is without even an introduction. Higgins is supremely concerned with manners and appearance, and he prides himself by being able to tell a person's background and to essentially see through any facades or airs that the person might put on to appear more high-class. It is this belief that makes the challenge of fooling others with Eliza's false upper-class exterior particularly delightful to him. 


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A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Eliza becomes angry with Higgins and tells him to mind his own business. Higgins becomes angry with Eliza in return, retorting that her walking around and speaking the way she does is exactly his business. In this quote, he goes so far as to say that a woman who speaks the way Eliza does has "no right to live." 

Higgins represents an extreme of Victorian society, which associated wealth and high status with high morality, and associated the lower classes with dirtiness and a lack of morals. In this instance, without knowing Eliza at all, Higgins decides that she is not worthy of a life because she is a lower class than he and speaks in a dialect that is associated with the lower classes. While he tells her that she is a scourge upon a language that produced great works of literature (although, of course, the Bible—one of Higgins' examples—wasn't originally written in English), he fails to comprehend that her lower status means that she has not had access to the same education he has had the privilege of receiving. To Higgins, appearance is everything, closely followed by birth. Eliza has neither a classy appearance nor notable birth; to him, she might as well be dead. 

You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.

Related Characters: Henry Higgins (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

After astonishing the crowd by telling everyone that he knows where they are from, Higgins contends that he is so skilled in teaching dialects that he could teach the flower girl how to speak like a duchess in three months. 

Higgins' ego as an educated and wealthy man means that while he believes Eliza could pass as a noblewoman, she will never actually be one. In tracing everyone's accents, and taking great pride in doing so, Higgins shows that he believes class is inborn and intrinsic. He takes great delight in teaching other people how to speak nobly, though with his excellent ear, he alone can likely tell that their accents and mannerisms are not completely genuine. While Higgins believes accent and success are intrinsically linked, he holds the Victorian notion that class is something one is born with, not something you can learn or earn. From this idea comes Higgins' delight in the challenge of fooling the upper crust into thinking a lowly flower girl is one of them. Though Higgins is wealthy, he is not noble, and is excited at the notion of using his skill and wit to beat the nobility at their own game. 

Act 2 Quotes

Is this reasonable? Is it fairity to take advantage of a man like this? The girl belongs to me.

Related Characters: Alfred Doolittle (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, storms into Higgins' house, demanding to know where his daughter is. He claims to have not seen her for two months, and accuses Higgins of taking his daughter away from him. However, when Higgins dismisses his claims and says he can take Eliza back, Doolittle is shocked at his passivity. In this quote, he presses on, insisting that Higgins is being entirely unreasonable by keeping Eliza away from him. 

This quote is further evidence of Eliza's situation as a girl who is now to be "kept" by Higgins, and who has previously "belonged" to her father. Both men see her as a kind of property, one to be traded and bartered and used as a kind of commodity. Here, neither Higgins nor Doolittle treat Eliza as an actual human being with feelings. Their lack of empathy for Eliza is indicative of Victorian misogyny, and the treatment of women by men and patriarchal structures in general. Higgins' treatment of Eliza is, sadly, less appalling when the reader sees how her father treats her--she is used to being ordered around by an older man. Though she is between a rock and a hard place in terms of male guardians, at least remaining in Higgins' care will allow her a glimmer of hope for a better life. 

Act 3 Quotes

Liza: They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
Mrs Eynsford Hill: Dear me!
Liza: What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.
Mrs Eynsford Hill: What does doing her in mean?
Higgins: Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Mrs. Eynsford Hill (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

When Eliza is brought before Mrs. Higgins' company, Higgins instructs her to speak about only two topics: the weather and health. Eliza, whose dialect is now upper class but whose small talk is not yet groomed, takes this to mean she can speak about the "barometrical situation" and her theory as to who "done in" her aunt. 

In this quote, Eliza shocks and amuses the crowd with a story about her dead aunt, who curiously survived influenza (thanks to Mr. Doolittle, who ladled "gin down her throat til she came to") but then suddenly died, her hat going missing as well. Eliza was hoping to inherit the hat, and believes that whoever took the hat likely killed her aunt. This decidedly indecorous cocktail conversation shocks and amuses the audience, proving to Higgins that he has a lot more work to do before he can pass her off as a noblewoman at a garden party. 

Though her appearance and speech are well-groomed, the content of Eliza's conversations are not. This shows that in the intervening months, Higgins has tackled how Eliza sounds and looks, but has not paid attention to the fact that she is actually a person who thinks and reasons. He has not though to coach her, specifically, on what Victorian culture is, because he has not thought of her as an equal human with emotions and complex thought. This sitting room test is a rude awakening to what Eliza is--a human--and what she is capable of. A human, Higgins begins to slowly realize, is much more than what one hears and sees on the outside. 

The new small talk. You do it so awfully well.

Related Characters: Freddy Eynsford Hill (speaker), Eliza Doolittle
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

When Eliza enters the sitting room, Freddy is immediately enamored of her. He assures Eliza that she has not said anything incorrect (despite the inappropriate content of her "small talk") and compliments her for tackling new Victorian social norms.

In this quote, Freddy praises Eliza for taking on "the new small awfully well." When Eliza speaks of inappropriate topics, like unsolved murder and alcoholism, in the midst of upper-crust company, Freddy and Clara are delighted to have an amusing conversation for a change rather the same old "Victorian prudery," as Clara puts it. Saving her feelings, they decide on the fly that she is an advanced practitioner of the "new small talk," which challenges boring Victorian social norms and makes fun, daring topics appropriate for sitting rooms.

This thinking completely defies Higgins' experiment: He wants Eliza to fit in to existing Victorian society, not become a radical within it. Having an older generation, represented by Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Eynsford Hill, contrasted by the young Clara and Freddy, shows that social norms are highly variable from person to person and even sitting room to sitting room. From Higgins' mold Eliza may be a hit in a garden party but bomb in another situation. This further raises the question of what will happen to Eliza after the experiment is over: the skills to charm a garden party may win Higgins' bet, but they won't satisfy all of Eliza's life goals and desires. This scene shows that Higgins' experiment, though rooted in the "real world," will, to Higgins, only ultimately succeed or fail in the context of his closed laboratory. 

Act 5 Quotes

But do you know what began my real education?
Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me.

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Colonel Pickering (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Amidst the fight in Mrs. Higgins' house, Eliza turns to Pickering and expresses her affection towards him. Compared to Higgins, he was highly respectful towards her throughout the experiment (if exceedingly immature in intentions), and in this quote, she notes that her "real education" towards becoming a lady began when he called her Miss Doolittle, rather than Eliza or a flower-girl.

Here, Eliza reveals that it is not phonetics or etiquette lessons that ultimately led to her transformation, but rather the respect that acting in socially acceptable ways earned her. Though Higgins did not believe that he could do anything more than pass her off as a duchess, the respect that Eliza felt from society went deeper than appearances, and allowed her to finally realize that she could have higher goals beyond selling flowers. In this aspect, Higgins' experiment both help and hurt: it gave her the means to dream higher than she ever had before, and to experience self-respect and self-standards, though Higgins' crass attitude towards her emotions and intelligence severely dampened her self-esteem and spirits. Thus, it appears to have been Pickering whose kindness pushed Eliza through the experiment, and inspired her to take a stand against Higgins when he acted so rudely upon its completion.