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.
Language and Speech ThemeTracker
Language and Speech Quotes in Pygmalion
And how are all your people down at Selsey?
Who told you my people come from Selsey?
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.
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.
Is this reasonable? Is it fairity to take advantage of a man like this? The girl belongs to me.
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.
The new small talk. You do it so awfully well.
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.