Use of Language in My Fair Lady

Candace, 20 July 2005, Comments Off on Use of Language in My Fair Lady
Categories: Bodies, Language, School, Women's Studies

In the film My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins endeavours to transform Eliza from a common person to a gentlewoman completely trained in the language and etiquette of the gentry.

Professor Higgins is a linguistic purist. He feels that people who do not speak as he does, (i.e. as a proper English gentleman), have “no right to live” and “should be taken out and hung for murdering the English tongue.” To him, diversity in accent, word choice, and inflection are undesirable. As the subject of the movie Eliza is the focal point of his intolerance but in reality, he is self-absorbed and treats many people poorly, especially those he feels have inferior language skills. In the class handout on Quantitative Linguistics we examined the difference in language between different classes and this is what Professor Higgins is referring to: language reflects status/status is reflected in language. The working class and the aristocracy are both identified by Professor Higgins as soon as they begin to speak.

Professor Higgins is disrespectful to Eliza from the beginning of the film and he demonstrates this by the labels he applies to her. He applies Coates “Androcentric Rule” (CW41). He views anyone who is not the same negatively. He calls her a “squashed cabbage leaf” and suggests that it is of no difference to him whether she is invited to sit or is thrown out the window. He uses a metaphor of rotten food to describe her, associating a woman with spoiled food, no longer useful or good to consume. He refers to Eliza as “baggage” and he yells at her. This shows that he does not recognize her personhood, and it reduces her to object status, perpetuating women’s inferior status in society. Professor Higgins also androcentrically questions, “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” He sings that women are irrational and frustrating because they are different from him. This echoes to Tannen’s work that men and women are different creatures unable to understand each other (434, 437). Professor Higgins and Eliza are caught by the metamessages between them which impede their understanding of each other. Professor Higgins is very androcentric when he suggests that everything would improve if only women acted like men: if they spoke honestly, were pleasant, did not shout. It does not occur to him that men have any weaknesses nor does he address any of the positive characteristics a woman might have. He has decided that he is the norm and woman is inferior.

In My Fair Lady men use language to control women’s behaviour. Her father torments Eliza in an early scene until she agrees to give him money at which time he calls her “a noble daughter.” This shows that submissive women are ‘good’ and assertive women are ‘bad’. Although Eliza is an employed, adult woman her father can influence her to do as he wishes with the way he speaks to her.

Lakoff suggested that the use of strong expletives is a characteristic of men’s language and a woman who uses strong expletives is vulgar and unladylike (Courseware 57-58). Coates also describes the use of swearing and taboo language saying that the suggestion that “women’s more polite use of language . . . is attempting to prescribe how women out to talk” (45). This is illustrated in My Fair Lady at the horse races. Based on Lakoff’s and Coates’ work, Eliza’s excitement and shouting to her horse identifies her as an impostor-gentlewoman. A true lady of the upper class would maintain her composure regardless of the excitement she is experiencing. A true female of the gentry would not betray her breeding by vulgar language such as Eliza does. The gentlewoman who faints further illustrates this concept. Not only are women not supposed to use strong expletives, according to the texts they are considered too sensitive to be exposed to the strong feelings represented by crude language (Coates 45, Lakoff 58). The display of strong emotion from a female, something that is considered inappropriate in the upper class, overpowers the woman and she faints. Even though by appearance and speech Eliza appears transformed, the transformation is not complete. Eliza has not fully absorbed the new style of speech with its appropriate use and behaviour. Alternatively, she is so far unable to eliminate the behaviour acceptable in her previous experience. Her transformation has been superficial: external features of appearance and speech only. The internal alteration has not occurred.

Although she no longer speaks or looks like a member of the lower class she has yet to be treated any differently by her mentors. Eliza makes the most profound declaration of the film at the very end when she says, “the difference between a lady and a common flower girl is not how they behave but how they are treated.” Professor Higgins has been shallow in his differentiation of the lower and upper classes: even though he attempts to distinguish between lower, middle, and upper classes of people by their degree of linguistic purity, he fails to recognize that recreating Eliza as a gentlewoman requires him to treat her as such.

Perhaps what is most ironic in contemplating women’s language in My Fair Lady is how it relates to women’s voice on a larger scale. Although the part of Eliza Doolittle was played by Audrey Hepburn, “about 90% of her singing was dubbed” by soprano Marni Nixon. Not only does the movie plot suggest that Eliza is not acceptable as herself, a ‘common flower girl’ but the actor in her role is also not fully accepted. Her voice in most of the songs is considered not good enough by the director and requires improvement in much the same way that Professor Higgins sought to androcentrically ‘improve’ Eliza.

Works Cited

Coates, Jennifer

Tannen, Deborah


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