Language Acquisition in G.B. Shaw's Play "Pygmalion"

Eliza's Social Transformation and Process of Language Learning

by Markus Emerson (Author)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sociolinguistics
2.1 Language and Sociolinguistics:
2.2 Sociolects in Pygmalion:

3. Language Acquisition
3.1 Introduction to Language Acquisition:
3.2 Eliza's Language and Manners:
3.3 Language Acquisition in Pygmalion:
3.4 Elements of Second-Language Acquisition:

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

Primary Literature

Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

This term-paper will deal with language acquisition in G. B. Shaw's play Pygmalion and the question whether Eliza's acquisition of higher, conventional English is comparable to second-language acquisition. This means classifying Eliza's Cockney, the London lower-class sociolect of the English language, as a different and independent form of the 'Standard English', which she is taught by Henry Higgins. Following this classification, light can be shed upon the resemblances with second-language acquisition.

Phonetician Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, are both experts concerning languages and agree to a bet, which is essential for this paper. This bet includes Higgins to teach Eliza the higher English language combined with the appropriate manners. Higgins supposes that transforming Eliza's speech, behaviour and appearance will make her a convincing duchess in the higher society of London. Although Pygmalion's preface is called “A Professor of Phonetics” and alludes to Higgins’ profession, the play does not explicitly concentrate on the process of Eliza's linguistic and social transformation but demonstrates the outcome of her process. Nevertheless, the paper will focus on the limited amount of information concerning Eliza's sociolect and her language acquisition in order to see whether it is comparable to second-language acquisition.

Additionally, it should be mentioned that the paper will deal with the issue of language and acquisition of language from a modern point of view. The term sociolect for example “emerged in the 1960s” (Ammon 2004, 200) and was not known in Shaw's lifetime.

2. Sociolinguistics

2.1 Language and Sociolinguistics:

To start with, in order to identify Eliza's speech and language a few definitions are needed. Language is an important aspect of communication. “At its most specific level, it may refer to the concrete act of speaking [and] writing” (Crystal 1997, 213). The paper will concentrate on the spoken aspect of language. Language reflects the speaker's ideas and view of the world and it gives information about the person who is speaking. Identity, origin, gender, age and culture are just some of the information which can be transferred by language. Dialects are “regionally and socially distinctive variet[ies] of language, identified by a particular set of words and grammatical structures” (Crystal 1997, 214). In contrast to the term dialect, the term accent mainly refers to differences in pronunciation.

According to Crystal (1997, 214), spoken dialects are also associated with a distinctive pronunciation. This can be found in Eliza's Cockney. Higgins, who teaches Eliza a “better English”, is “a Professor of Phonetics” (Shaw 2009, 23, 8) occupied with the study of spoken language. The “better English” Higgins is referring to, is most likely the “British English accent, […] which is known to Linguistics as RP ('received pronunciation'). […], favoured by the aristocracy and the upper-middle class” (Trudgill 2000, 7). As this paper does not just deal with pronunciation, but with grammar and the register of words as well, the term accent will be substituted by the term dialect, which was mentioned earlier. To further simplify it, the “better English” intended by Higgins and used by upper-middle classes will be shortened to “RP”.

Shaw's play Pygmalion takes place in London at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, England had strong “class divisions” and it is therefore “acceptable to classify people in terms of their work” (Greed 1996, 74). Hence, it is appropriate to consider Eliza's Cockney as a dialect based on social factors. Sociolinguistics deal with these kinds of social dialects or sociolects as “varieties of language determined by social environments or associated with a particular social group” (Ammon 2004, 201).

2.2 Sociolects in Pygmalion:

Eliza, who is used to sell flowers in the streets, has a strong London Cockney dialect. Cockney is the dialect of the working classes of London. Her dialect can be considered as a sociolect as it mirrors her low social background. Eliza was born in a very poor area, “Lisson Grove” in London. Eliza's personal hygiene and clothing further indicate her low, working-class background (Shaw 2009, 18). The class-system is fundamental to the usage of the term sociolect, as according to Ammon it deals with linguistic varieties whose “prime determinants [are] to be sought in sociological rather than geographical factors.” These Linguistic variations occurred “particularly in large urban areas” (Ammon 2004, 200), which London, location of the play, undeniably is.

In conclusion, Eliza's Cockney can be seen as a sociolect, as it “give[s] us clues about [her] social background” (Trudgill 2000, 23). And as Beardsmore (1979, 712) writes, Shaw reveals “the social function of language” as indication of one's social status. Higgins plans to present Eliza as an upper-class woman by changing her former sociolect into the RP used by the high society. In the s process of language acquisition will be elucidated.

3. Language Acquisition

3.1 Introduction to Language Acquisition:

In order to understand Eliza's acquisition of the better English language variety RP, the term language acquisition needs to be elaborated on. According to Krashen, language acquisition, in terms of acquiring first and second languages requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are not [only] concerned with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding. (Krashen 1981, 1)

Language acquisition will therefore be defined as the process of acquiring a language in order to communicate. It enables the speaker to engage in a “natural communication” and provides the opportunity to express ideas and feelings freely in the language. The process is very complex and, consequently, a variety of approaches can be applied. For the later comparison, the paper focuses on the theory of language acquisition established by the American linguist Krashen. In his “Monitor Theory”, Krashen hypothesises “that adults have two independent systems for developing ability in second languages, subconscious language acquisition and conscious language learning” (Krashen 1981, 1). To keep the paper simple these two aspects will be combined under the term language acquisition.

Eliza's acquisition of RP is a conscious effort that can be compared to the process of acquiring a second-language. This second - language acquisition can be distinguished from child language acquisition.



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TU Dortmund – Britische Kultur und Literaturwissenschaft
G.B. Shaw play language language acquisition language learning sociolect Pygmalion Eliza process process of language acquisition


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    Markus Emerson (Author)


Title: Language Acquisition in G.B. Shaw's Play "Pygmalion"