2017-2018 Blog Post #1: Intro/Deconstructing ‘My Fair Lady’

The 2017-2018 school year marks the continuation of “Sharing Englishes and Social Media”, a journey embarked on by Dr. Florescu and I. The first portion of our project has explored personal experiences, scholarly texts, and some previous research surrounding the way the monolinguistic ‘English’ has shaped our lives. This upcoming part of our project will be centered on how the concept of monolinguistic English appears in social media. “Social media” — for the sake of our project — branches outside of what we have come to know as present day social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. We will be exploring those platforms as well, but “social media” for this project will also encapsulate the arts, such as movies, literature, and so on.  Dr. Florescu and I also plan to take a closer look into how our present society has found ways to branch away from monolinguistic English, creating other Englishes are, indeed, valid forms of Englishes.

As an introduction to the half of our research dedicated to media, I’d like to begin by deconstructing this clip of My Fair Lady. For those unfamiliar with the film, the Google synopsis of the film is as follows:

“In this beloved musical, pompous phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is so sure of his abilities that he takes it upon himself to transform a Cockney working-class girl into someone who can pass for a cultured member of high society. His subject turns out to be the lovely Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), who agrees to speech lessons to improve her job prospects.” 

The synopsis alone is very telling: language becomes a classist factor, a tool that can be used to differentiate who is of ‘high society’ and who is not. Not only does Eliza Doolittle’s working-class society set her apart from high society, but linguistically, her Cockney accent — common among working-class Londoners — becomes a dead giveaway to her social standing.

The clip begins with Higgins asking Doolittle to recite the phrase: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” He is clearly exasperated by her pronunciation, calling it an offense to the Lord (My Fair Lady 0:00-0:37). Although ‘proper issue’ is more often than not looked upon as a minority issue, it is important to note that both Higgins and Doolittle are white; the only thing that separates them is that Doolittle is a female and more importantly, she is working-class.

The film takes on a rather classist approach. The premise of the movie is centered around Doolittle not being considered a proper lady due to the way she performs her English, as it is associated with being working-class. The fact of the matter is that Doolittle does speak English, but clearly, this is not enough for Doolittle. He needs her to speak proper English or fulfill what I have previously referred to as the gold standard of English. In his eyes, her Cockney accent does not satiate the requirements. Rather than being looked at as a full-fledged human, Doolittle is Othered because her Cockney accent is a signifier of her marginalized working-class status. Professor Higgins asserts his superiority over her; he is white, male, and upperclass, and so, he becomes the standard. In order for her to be perceived as acceptable to him and his society, she must assimilate and shape herself in his likeness. This process becomes impossible if she cannot change the way she performs her English and thus, she becomes his project — a broken thing that needs fixing. An entire song is dedicated to his plight, titled “Poor Professor Higgins”, as he endures the burden of civilizing the social savage.

Through the performance of her English, Doolittle becomes the butt of the joke. We are not meant to take her seriously in this clip because even Higgins does not take her seriously. Higgins views Doolittle, in her current state, as a blight on society, while we look at her as comedic relief because of her inability to fulfill the gold standard. However, perceiving those who speak dialects affiliated with the working-class as purely comedic is problematic, since we are taking joy/humor in someone’s social status because we see them as being lesser.

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=my+fair+lady+plot&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS737US737&oq=my+fair+lady+plot&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j0l5.3655j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

English-Speaking Immigrants, Race-Born Englishes, and The “Gold Standard”

It is impossible to conduct this research without reflecting on how English has impacted my life and my family’s, so to further my reason, I introduce the personal narratives of my immigrant parents’ experiences with Englishes, as well as my own.

Both my father and my mother are immigrants, hailing from the island of Jamaica and the South American country of Guyana respectively. In Jamaica, the official language is English, but the dialect is commonly referred to as Patois. My mother’s homeland of Guyana is the only South American country that has English as its official language and many Guyanese people also speak Patois as well. While being born into a country that boasts English at the official language might suggest that the transition from their country to the United States was a smoother transition than a non-English speaking immigrant to the States, there was still a struggle with the language for my parents, especially my mother.

My mother’s mother, a Wapishana woman, was born in a region called Rupununi in Southern Guyana and spoke the Wapishana language. She attended school and never finished high school, but clearly recalled the school teaching the King’s English, though their community primarily spoke the Arawakan language amongst eachother. She ended up running away from her village and into the village of Georgetown where she met her future husband, who insisted that he would one day bring her and her children to the United States. While she never really believed him, she continued to teach her children the King’s English, “just in case”. To prepare her children for an English-speaking culture, she never taught them how to speak Wapishana. For her, her main goal was getting them to smoothly transition into the United States through language assimilation, making them practice their “perfect English” so they would have better opportunities than she would have.

Growing up in Guyana, my mother was often told that she spoke “good English” by adults while other children mocked her for being “highty-tighty” (or being posh/believing that she was superior to them). Upon arriving in America, my mother found herself being teased for having an accent, despite speaking “perfect English” back at home. It was the accent that was a dead-giveaway for her not being American-born, and because others recognized this through her speech, it made her highly self-conscious when it came to speaking. Back at home, “[she] felt superior, while in America, [she] felt inferior”; being labeled as a foreigner due to her particular English made her work twice as hard at perfecting her King’s English, not wanting to seem ‘lesser than’ in comparison to her peers.

This story brings up the concept of class connotations related to language, as well as the identity erasure of immigrants in relation to language assimilation. Because the children in her homeland of Guyana called my mother out for being “highty-tighty” for trying to perfect the King’s English, this shows us that even children understand the class association with language from a young age. Because the King’s English is held as the gold standard (aka the best form of English there is), those who achieve it (or chase after it) are also held to a certain status; those who do not perfect it are seen as lesser and tied with a negative class association. Because such a strong emphasis was placed on my mother’s life to learn the King’s English, other children perceived her as believing she was better than them. This class distinction still exists in American culture, as those who speak “proper English” are viewed as natural, while those who do not are instantly Othered as being different or not living up to the standard.

Identity erasure through language assimilation traces back to my first blog post, specifically the analysis of Marlene Nourbese Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language”. Like my mother and father, Nourbese Philip (of Trinidad and Tobago) comes from a country where English is the official language. Yet like my mother, there is a war waging within Nourbese Philip’s identity as an English-speaking immigrant. English is both my mother and Nourbese Philip’s mother tongue, a language they have known all of their lives. Still, there is a foreignness to this mother tongue; although it is “natural” for them, they feel as if they must fight to achieve the gold standard in the eyes of a new society. The internal struggle between their culture/identity and attempting to assimilate to this European standard of language causes them great confusion. This also causes them anguish, and through this anguish, they recognize that the language is not as “natural” as they believed it to be their entire lives. I grew up in the community of Canarsie in Brooklyn, New York. Composed of mostly Caribbean and black families, it is more common to hear both Patois and African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE) where I live. In both cases, both Patois have incorrectly been identified as “slang” or “broken English”, when they are not either. In fact, “broken English” has negative connotations, as they insinuate that they are incorrect or “broken” and in need of being fixed.

For myself, I grew up in the community of Canarsie in Brooklyn. Comprised of mostly Caribbean and black families, the most common dialects where I live are Patois and African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE). In the cases of Patois and AAVE (which has previously been referred to as Ebonics), both have incorrectly been identified as “slang” or “broken English”, when they are not either. In fact, the terminology “broken English” itself has negative connotations behind it. “Broken” insinuates that it is something that needs to be fixed, as it is not correct. Only once it is fixed can it be deemed as “in working condition”.

I believe that my mother unknowingly drew from her experiences with her own brother, except this time, it was related to AAVE. My mother stressed the same importance of speaking/knowing the King’s English to myself and my siblings and in our household, we were not allowed to speak AAVE at all. Whenever my mother heard a sentence slip from our lips that did not fall within the parameters of the King’s English, we were immediately popped on the back of our heads and corrected. Even letting it slip once at the dinner table was enough to garner a dirty look from my mother, which prompted you to be on your P’s and Q’s for the remained of dinner.

In my mother’s eyes, she was preparing her children to assimilate into a King’s English-speaking culture. Knowing firsthand how speaking anything but the gold standard of English could Other a person, she steered us away from using anything less than that standard of English. She believed that her children fluently speaking this form of English would open doors to new opportunities and feared that her children speaking less because of negative connotations. AAVE holds its own stigma, as it is often connected with uneducated minority communities. People who speak AAVE are often perceived as “ghetto”, suggesting an inferior status due to race and class. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to use AAVE, allowing myself to get comfortable in this form of English used by my peers that gave us a oneness that we understood. While my mother still frowns upon the usage of AAVE in the household, it took for all of her children to learn on our own that using AAVE does not suggest in any way that we are uneducated, classless, or inferior to others who do not use this form of English.

The narratives from myself, my mother, and her mother show the dangerous assumptions that stem from believing that one single English should be upheld as the gold standard. To continue on this path of having a single standard raises many questions for myself:

Are we not allowed to celebrate our own Englishes because they do not fit into the gold standard?  Will immigrants forever be subjected to chasing after a strict standard of English while shedding their identities in the process, perpetuating this cycle of erasure? Will race-influenced Englishes never be seen as true Englishes and similarly to the immigrant plight, will they have to shun their personal Englishes in order to conform to an English more palatable by society? These are all questions that I seek to answer (and disprove) over the course of our year-long research.

Sharing Englishes and Social Media

Dr. Florescu and I are currently working on our project titled, “Sharing Englishes and Social Media. Through our project, we aim to emphasize the need to recognize that there is more than one way for an individual to perform the English language, thus creating a series of “Englishes”. Furthermore, we seek to dispel the myth of “improper English” by acknowledging how language has been used to oppress and subdue minority communities by forcing them to adhere to monolinguistic English, rather than forming their own tongue and identity. By examining the factors in which language has been used to suppress, this research could be used to change our perceptions on English by allowing us to acknowledge a multitudinous array of “Englishes” as valid, question what we deem “proper English”, and create newfound understanding for those who do not perform their English in the same way that we do. I aim to do this by drawing from various media—literature, media, music, songs, and art—that comment on how one’s personal identity influences their own Englishes. I would like to go through scholarly journals to find articles in relation to race, gender, immigration status, and sexual identity to see the significants between these groups and the English language. Lastly, I would also like to conduct some informal interviews to gain insight on those who speak English as a second language, those who have stylized the English language in the black, female, and queer communities, and how social media has allowed them to enhance and control their own languages. If I could figure out a way to conduct a survey that could capture these thoughts, that would be phenomenal as well.

As an introduction to our topic, I have studied the 8-minute long audio track of  “Discourse on the Logic of Language” by Marlene Nourbese Philip, as well as Lenelle Moïse’s “the children of immigrants”, using them as points of comparison.

Philip’s audio track is spoken with a certain calmness, but there is a commanding presence about it. She repeats the message multiple times: “English is my mother tongue / a mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan language / l(anguish) / anguish / a foreign anguish / therefore, English is a foreign language / not a mother tongue.” Immediately, Philip paints for us a picture of the conflict between herself and the English language. She claims English as her mother tongue and states that it is not a foreign language because it is a part of her, something as natural as breathing air. Yet still, despite the naturalness of English and her asserting her ownership of the language, she also recognizes that English is something that brings her great anguish; she does this through combining “language” and “anguish” to create “l(anguish)”. English is seemingly innate to Philip, but she cannot ignore that the language has been imposed on her,  making her natural tongue seem foreign to her simultaneously. It is both her own and not her own, as a colonial and postcolonial lens would identify English as being a Eurocentric standard forced upon minorities. This idea of conflict may appear confusing to the listener during the first listen, as Philip states contradicting ideas on English being a mother tongue/not a mother tongue as well as foreign/not foreign. However, the confusion perfectly captures the way that Philip feels: something so natural to her—a language that she has spoken since birth—still feels foreign to her because it is of someone else.  As she repeats this internal struggle with herself and the language, booming clinical voices overpower her throughout the course of the audio track. They come without warning, drowning out her mantra with their own agendas.These voices do succeed in overpowering her at several points, giving historical snippets of ways that language has been used to oppress minorities: slave owners buying slaves that spoke different languages so they would not be able to communicate and form a rebellion,  parts of the brain related to speech being named/connected to scientists that tried to prove that white males’ brains were larger (and proved superiority to blacks, women, and other groups), etc. As a black woman, her voice is overpowered by the white voices and we can no longer hear her. She must repeat her message multiple times and fight in order for her message to be heard, as other voices attempt to silence her. 

On the other hand, Moïse’s “the children of immigrants” does not directly address language, but the implication that the study of language is crucial for the children of immigrants is absolutely present. The children of immigrants are gazed upon with great scrutiny: by their parents, teachers, and other individuals in their lives. Their parents force them to grow up quickly by leaving behind their childhood and launching them through adulthood at a young age, in hopes that this will grant them a better opportunity at life once they have grown. As the child of immigrants, they are not expected to have mastered the language at such a young age. A teacher bewilderedly questions Moïse,  “How do you know? How do you already know?” Yet as children of immigrants, the children are held to an entirely different standard within their households. They must assimilate into this culture and perfect it in every way possible, including through their mastery of the English language. They must enunciate, spell, and speak properly, and once they have done it, they are forced to be the “bridge, cultural interpreter, [and] spokesperson” for two different cultures.  Through their parents expecting better lives for the children and by the children witnessing the hardships their parents endure for them to have an opportunity, their children are not allowed to be children. Instead, they take on the adult-like responsibility of reaching ‘the standard’, then go beyond the standard by perfecting it. The bar is set the highest for them and in a sense, they must speak English even better than native speakers with non-immigrant parents. In return, they are commended for their fluency in English. However, it must be questioned at what cost to the child’s emotional wellbeing and growth is this praise gained. 

“Discourse on the Logic of Language” by Marlene Nourbese Philip
http://www.nourbese.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Discourse-She-Tries-01.mp3

Lenelle Moïse’s “the children of immigrants”
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/91753