“Just you wait Henry Higgins, just you wait!”

MPU Blogs are like buses – you wait nearly a year and then 2 turn up within days of each other!  But I thought I would write this while it was relatively fresh in my head.

One of the great joys of filming around the University is that we get to see things and go places that other employees or students don’t often come across, or learn interesting little facts.

Meet Henry Sweet (pictured left) an English Philologist, phonetician, grammarian and pioneer in language teaching.  He was a student at Balliol College and was made reader in Phonetics at Oxford in 1901 and this portrait hangs in the hallway of the Phonetics Department in Wellington Square where we were filming last friday.

An irascible sort, he would eavesdrop on conversations furiously taking notes and categorising voice sounds and accents.  He developed his own unique type of shorthand or wrote using the symbols of his “Broad Romic” system of phonetic notation, could pronounce 72 vowel sounds and was engrossed in his studies to the exclusion of social amenities.

Does this ring a bell???  Yes, apparently Sweet is widely regarded to be the inspiration behind the character, Professor Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” and upon which the musical “My Fair Lady” is based.

Bernard Shaw, who regarded Sweet as a man of genius, writes in the preface of ‘Pygmalion’ about his ‘Satanic contempt for all academic dignitaries and persons in general who thought more of Greek than of phonetics’. The play’s Professor Higgins, he says, is not a portrait of Sweet: ‘With Higgins’s physique and temperament Sweet might have set the Thames on fire.’ There are, however, ‘touches of Sweet in the play’ and I think this is enough for Oxford to count one of the most recognisable characters in English literature as one of its own!

So for all you cantankerous academics out there – watch out, you could be the next inspiration for some would be playwright!!


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