George Bernard Shaw (1856 –1950) was born in Dublin. He is famous for his plays and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. From an early age, Shaw identified himself as a socialist. His literary work mirrored this commitment and he bravely challenged the hypocrisies surrounding marriage, language and convention.
Pygmalion (1913) has become Shaw's most famous play, mostly through its film adaptation as My Fair Lady. Through Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, Shaw demonstrates how speech is linked to social classes. In the following video-clip we are introduced to Eliza Doolittle. When we first meet her, she speaks with a Cockney accent (east end of London) or what Professor Henry Higgins calls kerbstone English. According to Higgins, her English will keep her in the gutter the rest of her life. However, he can improve her chances in life by teaching her proper English or what often is referred to as ”Queen’s English”. He makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering and claims that within three weeks he will pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.
Tasks and Activities
- What is typical of Eliza’s language (Cockney)?
- The "Queen's English" should be the only proper way of speaking.
- Language determines one's status.
- Language is reflected in manners, habits and dress.
- Language determines what kind of jobs one will get.
Act It Out
- Work in pairs and act out a lesson between Professor Higgins and Eliza. The lesson may well include famous quotations such as “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains” and “In Hampshire, Hereford and Hartford hurricanes hardly ever happen”. Use your imagination.
- Work in groups and make a role play in which speech and choice of words are crucial. Act it out.
Search for 'Pygmalion' and 'George Bernhard Shaw' on the Internet using sites like YouTube and see if you can find some clips from the play. Pay attention to the various accents.
- English subject curriculum