“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.”from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
These words spoken by Professor Higgins, the speech expert who transforms a Cockney girl into a lady by changing the way she talks, got me thinking about language as a tool of metamorphosis. It’s a personal question for me, as at a rather advanced age I’ve had to move to a different language environment and struggle to learn new speech habits. Am I changing into a “quite different human being”? How is this “new speech” affecting my life?
Although with typical egotism Higgins sees himself as being the active one in this process, we can also consider him as the instrument through which Eliza changes herself — it was her choice to change the way she spoke, though she did not quite realize the repercussions, or what she was really getting into when she began. Learning a new language, a new speech, is an activity of the whole person. It requires flexibility in body, soul, and mind, a softening and a remodeling, into new shapes that disclose new and sometimes unexpected or discomfiting possibilities.
It’s no accident that the myth Shaw’s play was based on concerns a sculptor who fell in love with his beautiful creation, for language and sculpture are closely linked, though one has an invisible and the other a visible expression. Learning a new accent or a new vocabulary does more than add to our cognitive stores of memory and mental association. It links us to another way of life, a different facet of the many views to be taken of our wide world. As Shaw says, it breaks down the barriers that divide soul from soul. And unless it’s done in the most superficial way, that has to change us, somehow.
I do experience the “remodeling” process at work in myself. It’s not an entirely pleasant sensation. A lot of the time I feel merely confused. Bearing with such confusion has been perhaps the biggest way I have changed, letting go of my need to see everything in clear and definite outlines. It’s seeped into my relationships and into my spiritual practice, too. I think I’ve gotten softer and less instantly reactive, less fixed on conceptual certainties, more comfortable sitting in a “cloud of unknowing.”
I don’t think I’m going to end up having my life as dramatically changed as Eliza’s was. But I already can tell that, as with her, there is no going back to the way I was before. This kind of change runs deep.
Can you think of other examples of how changing your language changes your life? Have you experienced this yourself?