The Futurist Corporation

A critical response to a celebration of Eliza Doolittle Day
22 May 2010, 4:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

If you listen to NPR as much as I do, you may have run into this story.

In accordance with the rituals of musical theatre celebrants, yesterday, May 20, was Eliza Doolittle Day. In My Fair Lady, the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle, a cockney British girl with an atrocious accent is trained to refine her diction to the more aesthetically pleasing cultural conventions. In the film, Eliza battles off an invading army of giant interplanetary insects to impress the King of England, and in the meantime, learns that the rain in Spain falls only on the poor and illiterate. Actually, the premise of this entire film is that proper annunciation and speechmanship amount to the difference between wealth, friends and lots of attention, and life-long failure.

In the above NPR story, Marc Acito has proposed that renewed attention be given to the premise behind this film. He encourages a renewed cultural interest in 19th cnetury pronunciatory tendencies so that aesthetically pleasing word sounds can be reintegrated into what is considered laudable. Acito’s premises seem to be that culture finds itself in a “fallen” state, in which vocal maleability has strectched itself to a point of overcoming workable vowel and consonant distinctions.

In fact, the tendency Mr. Acito has noted is one aspect of the tendency for languages to evolve over time. Since the invention of the dictionary by Sam Webster at the beginning of the 18th century, the English language has not been able to evolve  in the way it has for the centuries prior. Note here that the first dictionary generally appeared in 1538 under the auspices of Sir Thomas Elyot, surveying the Latin language. Webster’s dictionary gave a sort of foundation to written literary conventions, where individual preference had reigned before.

If you have ever seen 17th or 18th century prose, you may have noticed the whimsically broad spelling possibilities employed. For example, rake, might have been spelled raike, raeke, raek, or even reike. The mobilization of the English language was at the discretion of its employer. The rules that governed spelling tendencies did not seize the general population, or even the educated public fully until the 1790s. It took nearly a century for written language to be considered as a stationary stricture. This is not to say that language itself was not fixed already in a different dimension. The dictionary did not solidify the English language. English expression maintained a rigidity not within writing but in pronunciation. As can be seen in My Fair Lady, high society maintained such strong opinions on word pronunciation that deviations became clear indications of stupidity, undesirability, and a lack of refinement.

The shift to today’s cultural climate in which the opposite can be considered true can be understood when we allow that pronunciation has been forced to allow for a certain freedom that spelling once did and no longer does.

It is as if the English language could be considered generally to have a constant solid component and an organic component. Until the 18th century, the solid component, or the independent variable, to put it algebraicly, had been the language’s pronunciation. Since this component was held in check by social norms and linguisitc emphasis, the ways in which words were expressed on the page became more important.

When the spellings of words became fixed, the conditions were laid for a shift in cultural consciousness. Of course shifts in social frames of reference do not happen overnight. Over a period of about a century, from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the 19th century, the written component of language became considered more the dependent variable, while the spoken component of language slowly took on the role of independent variable. So speech took on the structural flexibility that writing once had.

This new direction of growth for the English language moved towards a centralization of mannerisms. In the same way that spelling variations gravitated towards the most easily accessible choices, so speech conventions gravitated toward the most easily accessible vowel forms. Of course, this had always been the case in linguistic evolution, but the breakdown of the social structures that mandated its maintenace, facilitated this shift under more passive conditions.

Pygmalion was wirtten in 1913, Shaw capture his experiences with the tail end of this phenomenon.

Lacan says that the unconscious is structured like a language, but an analysis such as this might suggest that languages are structured with an unconscious within their own natures. Languages need both structured analytical components, like grammatical rules and punctuation to be considered a language by any definition of the word. This might be homologous with the conscious mind. It would appear that languages also need room for organic motion, evolution, flexibility, and eros. This component of language works outside of the conscious minds of its speakers. Its motions do not revolve around the everyday of signs and signifiers. Instead, it imposes superegotic demands and extra-communicative currents on its speakers based on past traumas or events, such as the invention of a standardized dictionary. Perhaps this takes the metaphor too far.

Regardless, it becomes clear that the motion of the English towards more rustic pronunciations seems to indicate some sort of cultural break from the conditions of Pygmalion, in which culture prevented these shifts rather than encouraged them.


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