What language did Eliza Doolittle speak in “Pygmalion?”

What language did Eliza Doolittle speak in Professor Higgins had a challenging task before him as he had to train an uneducated flower girl how to speak properly. At the beginning of the 20th century the proper pronunciation played an essential role to securing a good job and thus guaranteed financial stability. Actually, the trend hasn’t changed much since the play was written in 1912. To this day, you can get more business overseas if you speak clearly and effortlessly and if your accent is not as discernible.

Eliza’s accent was rather peculiar and immediately gave away her humble background and upbringing. She spoke “Cockney” dialect of the English language, a dialect which was associated with the suburbs of east London, the East End. Around the time when “Pygmalion” was published the East End of London grew to be associated with poverty and destitute. Eliza was a common girl selling flowers on the street when she met Professor Higgins who promised to her that her life would change completely once she polished her pronunciation.
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What exactly was wrong in Eliza’s speech? There were, of course, a number of lexical and grammatical errors, but we will mainly focus on her pronunciation as that was something that Professor Higgins set out to correct.

Did you know that your accent is most recognizable by your vowels, and not by the consonants? Vowels give away your background and your motherland? There’re certain consonants and vowels in the Russian language that make one’s accent very noticeable, but what sounds did Eliza pronounce differently from the Standard British pronunciation?

VowelsCockney English is characterized by the following vowel changes: the /i:/ sound is usually pronounced as /əi/: the word cheese is pronounced as ch/eeiiz/. The /ai/ vowel in the word “light” would sound almost like /oi/ l/oi/t, and the /ei/ as in the word “take” would be very close to t/ai/k. There are a number of other vowels that are pronounced differently in Cockney. Let’s watch a portion of the movie to hear Eliza practice one simple phrase, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”:

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ConsonantsAnother characteristics of Cockney is the “h”-dropping. Eliza would drop “h” at the beginning of words, so instead of saying “hat” she would say ” ‘at”, but in some cases she would add “h” where it didn’t belong, for instance she would say the word “ever” as “hever.” Watch the following clip and listen to Eliza practicing another tongue-twister, “In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.”
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IntonationIntonation is just as important as pronunciation of single sounds. Standard British pronunciation (Received pronunciation or the Queen’s language, as they call it sometimes) has beautiful tone movements, up and down, depending on the type of the sentence. Eliza, on the contrary, had a “flat” intonation, with no tone movements and/or pitch. Watch the following clip and listen to Eliza repeating after Professor Higgins a simple sentence “How kind of you to let me come.” Note an interesting method of teaching intonation that Professor Higgins employs.
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