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Pygmalion
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PREFACE TO PYGMALION.

A Professor of Phonetics.
As will be seen later on, Pygmalion needs, not a preface, but a
sequel, which I have supplied in its due place. The English have
no respect for their language, and will not teach their children
to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach
himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman
to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or
despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners:
English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer
England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is
why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play. There have
been heroes of that kind crying in the wilderness for many years
past. When I became interested in the subject towards the end of
the eighteen-seventies, Melville Bell was dead; but Alexander J.
Ellis was still a living patriarch, with an impressive head
always covered by a velvet skull cap, for which he would
apologize to public meetings in a very courtly manner. He and
Tito Pagliardini, another phonetic veteran, were men whom it was
impossible to dislike. Henry Sweet, then a young man, lacked
their sweetness of character: he was about as conciliatory to
conventional mortals as Ibsen or Samuel Butler. His great ability
as a phonetician (he was, I think, the best of them all at his
job) would have entitled him to high official recognition, and
perhaps enabled him to popularize his subject, but for his
Satanic contempt for all academic dignitaries and persons in
general who thought more of Greek than of phonetics. Once, in the
days when the Imperial Institute rose in South Kensington, and
Joseph Chamberlain was booming the Empire, I induced the editor
of a leading monthly review to commission an article from Sweet
on the imperial importance of his subject. When it arrived, it
contained nothing but a savagely derisive attack on a professor of
language and literature whose chair Sweet regarded as proper to a
phonetic expert only. The article, being libelous, had to be
returned as impossible; and I had to renounce my dream of
dragging its author into the limelight. When I met him
afterwards, for the first time for many years, I found to my
astonishment that he, who had been a quite tolerably presentable
young man, had actually managed by sheer scorn to alter his
personal appearance until he had become a sort of walking
repudiation of Oxford and all its traditions. It must have been
largely in his own despite that he was squeezed into something
called a Readership of phonetics there. The future of phonetics
rests probably with his pupils, who all swore by him; but nothing
could bring the man himself into any sort of compliance with the
university, to which he nevertheless clung by divine right in an
intensely Oxonian way. I daresay his papers, if he has left any,
include some satires that may be published without too
destructive results fifty years hence. He was, I believe, not in
the least an ill-natured man: very much the opposite, I should
say; but he would not suffer fools gladly.
Those who knew him will recognize in my third act the allusion to
the patent Shorthand in which he used to write postcards, and
which may be acquired from a four and six-penny manual published
by the Clarendon Press. The postcards which Mrs. Higgins
describes are such as I have received from Sweet. I would
decipher a sound which a cockney would represent by zerr, and a
Frenchman by seu, and then write demanding with some heat what on
earth it meant. Sweet, with boundless contempt for my stupidity,
would reply that it not only meant but obviously was the word
Result, as no other Word containing that sound, and capable of
making sense with the context, existed in any language spoken on
earth. That less expert mortals should require fuller indications
was beyond Sweet's patience. Therefore, though the whole point of
his "Current Shorthand" is that it can express every sound in the
language perfectly, vowels as well as consonants, and that your
hand has to make no stroke except the easy and current ones with
which you write m, n, and u, l, p, and q, scribbling them at
whatever angle comes easiest to you, his unfortunate
determination to make this remarkable and quite legible script
serve also as a Shorthand reduced it in his own practice to the
most inscrutable of cryptograms. His true objective was the
provision of a full, accurate, legible script for our noble but
ill-dressed language; but he was led past that by his contempt
for the popular Pitman system of Shorthand, which he called the
Pitfall system. The triumph of Pitman was a triumph of business
organization: there was a weekly paper to persuade you to learn
Pitman: there were cheap textbooks and exercise books and
transcripts of speeches for you to copy, and schools where
experienced teachers coached you up to the necessary proficiency.
Sweet could not organize his market in that fashion. He might as
well have been the Sybil who tore up the leaves of prophecy that
nobody would attend to. The four and six-penny manual, mostly in
his lithographed handwriting, that was never vulgarly advertized,
may perhaps some day be taken up by a syndicate and pushed upon
the public as The Times pushed the Encyclopaedia Britannica; but
until then it will certainly not prevail against Pitman. I have
bought three copies of it during my lifetime; and I am informed
by the publishers that its cloistered existence is still a steady
and healthy one. I actually learned the system two several times;
and yet the shorthand in which I am writing these lines is
Pitman's. And the reason is, that my secretary cannot transcribe
Sweet, having been perforce taught in the schools of Pitman.
Therefore, Sweet railed at Pitman as vainly as Thersites railed
at Ajax: his raillery, however it may have eased his soul, gave
no popular vogue to Current Shorthand. Pygmalion Higgins is not a
portrait of Sweet, to whom the adventure of Eliza Doolittle would
have been impossible; still, as will be seen, there are touches
of Sweet in the play. With Higgins's physique and temperament
Sweet might have set the Thames on fire. As it was, he impressed
himself professionally on Europe to an extent that made his
comparative personal obscurity, and the failure of Oxford to do
justice to his eminence, a puzzle to foreign specialists in his
subject. I do not blame Oxford, because I think Oxford is quite
right in demanding a certain social amenity from its nurslings
(heaven knows it is not exorbitant in its requirements!); for
although I well know how hard it is for a man of genius with a
seriously underrated subject to maintain serene and kindly
relations with the men who underrate it, and who keep all the
best places for less important subjects which they profess
without originality and sometimes without much capacity for them,
still, if he overwhelms them with wrath and disdain, he cannot
expect them to heap honors on him.
Of the later generations of phoneticians I know little. Among
them towers the Poet Laureate, to whom perhaps Higgins may owe
his Miltonic sympathies, though here again I must disclaim all
portraiture. But if the play makes the public aware that there
are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among the most
important people in England at present, it will serve its turn.
I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful
play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is
so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is
esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of
the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be
didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be
anything else.
Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with
accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add
that the change wrought by Professor Higgins in the flower girl
is neither impossible nor uncommon. The modern concierge's
daughter who fulfils her ambition by playing the Queen of Spain
in Ruy Blas at the Theatre Francais is only one of many thousands
of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and
acquired a new tongue. But the thing has to be done
scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse
than the first. An honest and natural slum dialect is more
tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person to
imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club; and I am sorry to
say that in spite of the efforts of our Academy of Dramatic Art,
there is still too much sham golfing English on our stage, and
too little of the noble English of Forbes Robertson.
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