Isn’t it funny how we each assume that our own way of speaking, particularly when it comes to pronunciation, is the one true “right” way? In fact, as Americans we love British accents because they sound so different and strange to our ears, whereas technically, the proper British accent should be considered as “normal” everywhere, because that’s where English was first spoken: Early Modern English, that is – I’m not going to go into all the history involved in the formation of an entire language. The problem is, that either way, the language has been so diversified and stretched, that sometimes it’s very difficult for people of different dialects to understand each other, even when they are technically speaking the same language.
The song “Why Can’t The English?” from the “My Fair Lady” soundtrack, preferably the version sung by Rex Harrison, who performed the role of Professor Higgins both on the Broadway stage alongside Julie Andrews and in film alongside Audrey Hepburn, discusses this very problem.
Although the song is used in the musical as a comical way for a nerd to rant about his frustrations with this problem in order to later push the plot forward in the right direction, the problem is nonetheless important. I really love the way this song discusses language in a funny and somewhat offensive way simply in order to make a point.
“Hear them down in Soho square, Dropping “h’s” everywhere/Speaking English anyway they like/ You sir, did you go to school? / – Wadaya tike me for, a fool? / No one taught him ‘take’ instead of ‘tike!” Part of the song involves descriptions of various derivations of the British accent, which rhyme and are so harshly criticized by Harrison’s tone that they garner a comical quality. Of course, I may be biased by my love for the musical and its themes as a whole.
However, I do not stand by the inherent approval of social stratification expressed in the song, as in the lines, “This verbal class distinction, by now,/Should be antique. If you spoke as she does, sir,/Instead of the way you do,/Why, you might be selling flowers, too!”
The song does make up for this somewhat outdated view later by showing through other lyrics that it is simply a truth of that time period, perhaps even a criticism of that mind-set, rather than an idea the lyricists intended to spread. For instance, the generalization of the line set, “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him, / The moment he talks he makes some other/ Englishman despise him,” proves that the mindset isn’t necessarily that one class is better than the other, just that each has a different way of speaking: different slang and pronunciations.
When it comes to language education, the song compares English with various other languages. Some of which include, “Norwegians learn Norwegian; / the Greeks are taught their Greek. / In France every Frenchman knows his language fro “A” to “Zed” / The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce in properly….” As a French major, I can say that this is partly true – but not entirely. However, this may also be an outdated mindset or opinion about French culture.
The song continues, “Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning. / And Hebrews learn it backwards, / which is absolutely frightening.” This is just another silly, but true, rhyme that illuminates the comparisons between how the English language is taught and how other nations learn their national languages.
Higgins’ final rant to end the song really summarizes his entire point, “Why can’t the English, / Why can’t the English learn to speak?” The unfortunate part is that since these accents have so developed and are so deeply embedded in history, it’s now preferable to preserve each dialect rather than to impose “proper” English on every district. Indeed, each dialect is now considered beautiful in its own right, the same way that “ruggedly handsome” differs from conventional beauty.
Personally, I agree that these dialects should be preserved for historical and unconventional aesthetic reasons, but I see how these accents may have been considered disgraceful misrepresentations of the English language in earlier centuries.
Gabrielle Lamontagne is a junior majoring in French and business administration.