Ivar Aasen and Professor Higgins

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak,

Norwegians learn Norwegian, the Greeks are taught their Greek"

I've always been amused by this line from Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady script. Norwegian has a multitude of spoken dialects and has two written forms, in other words it's far from Higgins's linguistic ideals.

Others see the irony too - and that blog points out something I was not aware of, namely that there were two forms of Greek too! Quoting Nicholas Whyte:

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.

Interesting. Professor Higgins's ideal was that greater social equality should occur through everyone following the same linguistic norms. In Norwegian we have a quite strong tradition for the opposite: respecting dialects, based on Ivar Aasen's dialect research back in the 1800nds and his constructed written language, "landsmål / nynorsk". Compared to Higgins that's quite a radical idea: respecting everyone for their spoken language.

I doubt Lerner worried much about finding languages that would live up to Higgins's ideals for his lyrics, but yet: does the unintended irony show that Aasen's project is more realistic? That used verbal language is so varied, so personal, that Higgins's norms are a violation of personal expression?

To stretch this a bit with a reference to modern Norwegian debate, Nina Witoszek and Natasza P. Sandbu write in their article "Det fortrengte i norsk kulturhistorie":

The Norwegian intelligentsia wanted to civilize the larger public, to introduce it to the salons of Europe. The project reminds one of G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion (...) In Norway the outcome seems to have been the opposite: Eliza managed to convert the refined professor to the habits and manners of the general population.

("Samtiden" magazine, issue 2, 2005, p. 59 onwards - Issue in PDF-format, my translation)

Witoszek/Sandbu discuss the historical conflict between the concepts "popular/norwegian" and "high culture/international" from a perspective that is closer to that of Welhaven - or Higgins. It's interesting that they themselves bring up the Pygmalion-reference, but they overlook a possible conclusion: perhaps Aasen's thoughts can help us reach a place where we consider individual expression without prejudices of class, taste and origin but simply by quality and expressiveness. In spite of his good intentions of social equality, Higgins can never take us there.

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