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...Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek.
(See here from 2:17 on.)

An entry in which nwhyte may be Taking It All Too Seriously.

I have been wondering a bit about this line. Of course, the main reason Lerner and Lowe chose Norwegian and Greek as the two examples must have been rhythm and rhyme. There are not a lot of alternatives. Other languages with more speakers than Norwegian, whose names both describe the people who speak them and are pronounced as amphibrachs include "Bengali", "Korean", "Somali", but I guess that "Norwegian" fits the cultural context of "My Fair Lady" better. (You could also consider "Ukrainian", "Romanian", "Hungarian", "Albanian", "Bulgarian", "Armenian" and "Mongolian", but a lot of people would pronounce them with four syllables, while I think most English speakers would elide the "i" in "Norwegian".) And the only other language I can think of which would rhyme with "speak" is "Creek". (One could stretch a point for "Arab-eek" or "Amhar-eek", or with a bit more geographical outreach "Tajik", but "Greek" is an understandable choice.)

But the interesting thing about the line "Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek" is that in 1956, when the musical of My Fair Lady was made, and in 1964, when the film came out, it was not true. At least, not completely. Both Greece (at the time) and Norway are classic examples of countries in a state of diglossia, where there were actually two versions of the official language. Anyone learning Norwegian even today must choose between Bokmål and Nynorsk (Bokmål is a bit like Danish; Nynorsk is a bit like Bokmål). And until 1974, anyone learning modern Greek had to choose between the nineteenth-century Καθαρεύουσα and the (literally) demotic δημοτική (which is now the only standard). It is ironic that the two languages Lerner and Lowe chose for Professor Higgins' line are the two European languages of which the statement was least accurate at the time they were writing.

I strongly suspect Lerner and Lowe were unaware of this wrinkle. More likely, if there is another reason, they chose Norwegian as a mild homage to Ibsen, whose dramatic influence on Shaw is well attested, and Greek as a reference to the original source of the Pygmalion myth which Shaw drew on for the plot and title of his play.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 25th, 2007 08:44 am (UTC)
Sadly, whether the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains is also debatable. :)

(This post made me terribly happy. You're awesome. :))
Aug. 25th, 2007 09:18 am (UTC)
Interesting. Gives me a bit more of a picture of the development of Modern Greek. I often tell students that Greek is quite a conservative language in terms of its development over the years, that a native speaker of Demotic would more-or-less be able to read Homer or Herodotus, where the same is not true with a native English speaker and Beowulf in the original. I may have to modify such a viewpoint. Would I be right in concluding that a lot of the differences are in the spoken forms (with Katharevousa being polytonal, where demotic isn't)? Was the situation akin to modern Chinese, where the dialects are mutually intelligible in the written form, but not in the spoken?

The story behind Katharevousa is also interesting, in the way it was artificially created. As part of the course I teach, I look at the Second Sophistic, an intellectual movement of the second and third centuries AD, who were doing (if less self-consciously) exactly the same thing, communicating with each other in an archaizing dialect that was some way removed from what the ordinary man on the street, yet also did not really represent anything that had actually been spoken in the past - and like Katharevousa, this way of speaking influenced the way the language as a whole developed.
Feb. 22nd, 2008 03:15 am (UTC)
about Greek language forms
swisstone, there is an anecdote about a classicist who visited Greece, went up the Acropolis and tried to speak in homeric Greek with a local who was selling bottles of water and sodas, only to be met with dismay - shop owners in Athens are more likely to understand English than Homer's Greek. I would guess that any Greek would be able to read the Gospels for the New Testament was written in "koine", the form of Greek spread over the hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman empire, and is the basis for Demotic. But the dialects before that are a different thing. We must also keep in mind that there's been 3000 years since Homer.

There is a conservative movement in Greece, but I wouldn't say the language itself evolves with a conservative pace. Of course the written form does. At least it used to.

The issue of diglossia in Greece is a very difficult one, although practically it's considered resolved today (with Demotic taught in schools for more than 25 years now). I must clarify this: demotic is not necessarily monotonic; up til 1982 it was written with all the (historical) diacritcs [some people still use spirits and perispomeni]. and katharevousa is not necessarily polytonic (althought it tends).

Demotic and katharevousa are not dialects; they are two different aspects/opinions on the official language of the newly founded greek national state in the 19th century. There are of course different dialects which can be quite incomprehensible (cretan, pontiac, cypriot etc).

Also, Greeks until the '70s were only taught to read and write Katharevousa in schools. And it was the official language. But people in everyday life would speak Demotic.

Aug. 25th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)
This is precisely the kind of nerdiness I get all too excited about.

Thanks for the info!
Aug. 25th, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)
To Go Further,
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning
The Hebrews learn it backwards, which is absolutely frightening

Except that there is no one group called 'Arabians' and there's a ridiculous number of languages/dialects for the groups referred to. Not to mention that they also 'learn it backwards'.

I think that Lerner and Lowe were mainly going for cadence and general effect. Not to mention that the character of Higgins was very much a product of his time, with all the inherent biases about the world beyond his sceptred isle. Either way, it's still my favorite musical and, I suspect, I will forever have a small crush on Rex Harrison because of it. ;-)
Aug. 26th, 2007 01:27 pm (UTC)
Re: To Go Further,
Indeed; one could add that Arabic and Hebrew both present similar situations of diglossia to Norwegian and Greek!
Aug. 27th, 2007 07:17 pm (UTC)
Confusion = Confuzzled fo' shizzle
I'm slightly confused by this diglossian concept. I mean, how to differentiate between a plethora of dialects, the emergences of a new language from those dialects, and this hierarchical value? Or am I conflating two very different axes of linguistics?

Also, I'm curious about this idea of 'code switching' for Swiss German. There definitely seems to be a growing acceptance of what is broadly considered an Umgangssprache vis-a-vis High German, even to the point of phonetic Swiss-German spelling for some business signs and adverts.

Aug. 28th, 2007 07:44 am (UTC)
Re: Confusion = Confuzzled fo' shizzle
As I understand it, the point of diglossia is when the vernacular language is sufficiently coherent to be considered as not just a plethora of dialects, but something different from the official language; but different from bilingualism in that there is a clear hierarchy.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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