My Fair Lady

I’m in New York! A couple of nights ago, a friend and I went to see a lavish production of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center. (They had a two-story house onstage – and it revolved!) My Fair Lady is based, of course, on Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion.

Shaw scholars sometimes gnash their teeth when My Fair Lady is mentioned. Shaw hated the idea of turning his play into a musical, and the Shaw estate had to wait until he died to bring My Fair Lady¬†to Broadway. Along the way, Shaw’s edgy and provocative play became tamer and more conventional.

I’m a Shaw scholar myself, but I have a much more friendly attitude towards My Fair Lady. It was, after all, my first introduction to Shaw – and it’s a wonderful play with a glorious score.

But it’s not Shaw. Friday night I noticed something for the first time in “Why Can’t the English,” a song from the show. Henry Higgins is bewailing the sad state of the English language, and he sings, “In America, they haven’t used it for years.”

No linguistics expert would ever say that, and neither would Shaw himself. I’m an American, and I don’t think there’s anything in this post that’s inferior to British English – or even significantly different.

Yes, there are differences in spelling and pronunciation when you cross the Atlantic Ocean. But that doesn’t mean one side of that body of water is right and the other side is wrong. Shaw would never have taken that snobbish position.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s one of many reasons I adore Shaw: he thought New York accents were “elegant.” Yikes! I’ve always been ashamed of mine, and I’ve struggled – in vain – to erase it. My accent is a dead giveaway that I grew up on Long Island and attended public schools. I do not (sigh) have a classy accent.

But here’s what’s funny. If you didn’t grow up in New York, an accent like mine is extremely difficult to imitate. (Ask any actor!)

People think “boyd” is the New York pronunciation for bird. Nope! What we actually say sounds something like “buh-eed.” There are all kinds of subtleties like this embedded in our accent. Another feature of a New York accent is that we turn most of our vowels into diphthongs. And – famously – we often drop the r in words.

I suspect that all regional accents have these subtleties – and they all carry a linguistic history. I’ve been told that my New York accent originated in – of all places – Ireland and was brought here by immigrants.

If you’re a Beatles fan, you probably know that people from Liverpool tend to make the word book rhyme with Luke. (The boo– sounds like a Halloween boo.) That pronunciation proves they’re not educated, right?

Wrong. Book-rhymes-with-Luke is actually the original pronunciation. It died out in most places in England but lived on in Liverpool. So our Liverpudlian friends can snobbishly claim that they’re more authentic than the rest of us.

So – yes, I have a stubborn New York accent. But I also have an enlightened and respectful attitude towards other people’s speech habits, and that is something I can be proud of. Besides, Shaw thought my accent was “elegant.” So there!


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