“One of the hardest notions for a human being to shake is that a language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming.”
~ John McWhorter
Among the English-speaking nations of the world, there’s been a long-standing debate about which of these nations uses our not-so-common language properly. George Bernard Shaw, famed Irish playwright of a century ago, once commented: “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” And his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, noted: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”
In 1956, “My Fair Lady,” a musical based on Shaw’s play, “Pgymalion,” opened on Broadway. With music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, it would become one of the most popular Broadway musicals in history. In it, Professor Henry Higgins, played originally by Rex Harrison, sings about how poorly the English language is spoken everywhere. Its title: “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?”
The lyrics include this lament:
“Oh, why can’t the English learn to set
A good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!”
Were he alive today, Professor Higgins would probably find little reason to change his mind. Nevertheless, this ever-changing language of ours can still transport us to the heights, as well as the depths. As award-winning author Rosalie Maggio reminds us: “Language doesn’t belong to grammarians, linguists, wordsmiths, writers, or editors. It belongs to the people who use it. It goes where people want it to go, and, like a balky mule, you can’t make it go where it doesn’t want to go.”