Spoken English and Broken English

George Bernard Shaw

Published transcripts of four recordings made by George Bernard Shaw (credited as "Bernard Shaw") for the Linguaphone Institute. No date of publication.

Record No. 1 | Record No. 2 | Record No. 3 | Record No. 4


In every country in the world in which literature holds a place, the name of George Bernard Shaw is well known and, one may say, revered. No other writer, except, perhaps, Shakespeare, has earned such world-wide fame. The portraits broadcast by the press have made his features familiar to millions all over the earth. His writings have been translated into the language of every civilised nation, and there can hardly be anywhere a theatre of any importance at which at least some of his plays have not been produced. But of the multitudes who have thus become familiar with his name, his features and his work, how many have actually heard the living voice of the man himself? Their number is, comparatively speaking, infinitesimal. Thanks, however, to Mr. Shaw's courtesy in consenting to have his voice reproduced on Linguaphone records, it will now be possible for millions the world over to listen to his voice in their own homes and at their own pleasure.

That it is a great privilege for the Linguaphone Institute to be able to record the voice of this literary genius goes without saying, but, apart from that, the fact that the voice of the Master has thus been perpetuated will be of the utmost interest and importance to the vast number of people who have been entranced by his writings. There has been in modern times no writer who has ever captured the imagination of the public to such an extent as has George Bernard Shaw, and the making of these records represents a boon to his admirers all over the globe and an epoch-making event in the history of literature.

Mr. Shaw very kindly prepared a special address for the recording, and the text of that address, composed in his own inimitable style and full of true "Shavian" humour and whimsicality, will be found in the following pages, together with a short sketch of his career.

This is the first time that the voice of a writer of Mr. Shaw's calibre has been recorded, and we deeply appreciate the honour which he has done to the Linguaphone Institute by selecting it as the most appropriate medium through which to record his voice for the benefit of this and future generations.


George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, on July 26th, 1856. The influences of his early life are best described by himself in a letter to Frank Harris:—

"I come of a Protestant family of true-blue garrison snobs, but before I was ten years old I got into an atmosphere of freedom of thought, of anarchic revolt against conventional assumptions of all kinds utterly incompatible with the generalised concept of a Protestant family. I was forbidden nothing and spared nothing … My mother, brought up with a merciless strictness by a rich hunchbacked aunt to be a perfect lady, and disinherited furiously by her for being (consequently) ignorant enough of the world to marry my father, had such a horror of her own training that she left her children without any training at all."

He was brought up in an atmosphere of musical culture, his mother being intensely fond of music. He goes on:

"The great difficulty of dealing with my education lies in the fact that my culture was so largely musical. It will be admitted that no one without as much familiarity with the masterpieces of music as with those of literature could write adequately about Wagner. But the same thing is true of me. You cannot account for me by saying that I was steeped in Dickens, or even later in Molière. I was steeped in Mozart too; it was from him that I learned how art work could reach the highest degree of strength, refinement, beauty and seriousness without being heavy and portentous. Shelley made a great impression on me; I read him from beginning to end, prose and verse, and held him quite sacred in my adolescence. But Beethoven and early Wagner were at work alongside him.

"Then there was science, in which I never lost my interest… Socialism sent me to economics, which I worked at for four years, only to find, of course, that none of the other socialists had taken that trouble.

"I do not read any foreign languages easily without the dictionary except French… as to Latin I cannot read an epitaph or a tag from Horace without stumbling. I am unteachable and could not pass the fourth standard examination in an elementary school — not that anybody else could; but still you know what I mean."

When he was fifteen years old he became the junior clerk in an estate office in Dublin, where he was an efficient clerk; but he was gradually beginning to visualise life in a wider sphere and he later decided to go to London, where for nine years he tried to make a living by writing, and failed to do so. He tells us that from 1876 to 1885 he earned from his writings six pounds(!), adding that his mother, who had succeeded in her work as a music-teacher, worked for him during that time.

It was then that he became a musical critic, at the same time writing the Novels of his Nonage, as he called them; but these did not find a publisher: the note in his work was too new. But some of the greater men of the day — Robert Louis Stevenson, William Archer and William Morris — recommended the quality of these works. In 1884 Shaw joined the Fabian Society, a Socialist body, and took an active part in its propaganda, and it was in that environment that his training as a speaker and writer was completed. He used to write many of the pamphlets for the Society and these were submitted to the searching criticism of the many brilliant members of the committee, of which Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb were the outstanding figures.

At the same time his work as a musical critic was making him famous, and his plays began to raise a storm of criticism and to command the interest of the more advanced members of society. He propounded his views in his writings, as he did in his public speeches, with wit which evoked laughter, but there was always serious criticism and purpose behind it all.

Often his biting criticism was overlooked in admiration of his wit, and this attitude has often puzzled Shaw, for notwithstanding his apparent love of paradox, he is the most serious of men.

His plays and novels, a list of which is given on page 6, are masterpieces of English Literature, scintillating with wit and full of illuminating thought. Shaw is the clearest thinker and greatest writer of this age.



Widowers' Houses; Arms and the Man; Candida (published in a collection entitled Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant in 1898); The Devil's Disciple; Caesar and Cleopatra; Captain Brassbound's Conversion (published under the title of Three Plays for Puritans, 1900); Man and Superman; John Bull's Other Island; Major Barbara; The Doctor's Dilemma (1903-06); The Showing-up of Blanco Posnet (1909); Fanny's First Play (1911); Androcles and the Lion (1912); Pygmalion (1912); Back to Methuselah (1912); Heartbreak House (1917); St. Joan (1924); The Apple Cart (1930); Too True to be Good (1932); Geneva (1938) and King Charles's Golden Days (1939).


The Irrational Knot (1880); Love among the Artists (1881); Cashel Bvron's Profession (1901); An Unsocial Socialist (1901); Table Talk (1925); Translations and Tomfooleries (1926); The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism (1928).

Record No 1

Let me introduce myself: Bernard Shaw.

I am asked to give you a specimen of spoken English; but first let me give you a warning. You think you are hearing my voice; but unless you know how to use your gramophone properly, what you are hearing may be something grotesquely unlike any sound that has ever come from my lips.

A few days ago I heard a gramophone record of a speech by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, the Parliamentary Chief of the British Labour Party, who has a fine, deep Scottish voice and a remarkably musical and dignified delivery. What I heard was a high-pitched, sharp, cackling voice, most unmusical, suggesting a small, egotistical, very ill-mannered man, complaining of something. I said "That is not Mr. MacDonald. I know his voice as well as I know my own." The gramophone operator assured me that it was, and showed me the label on the record to prove it. I said, "No: that is not Ramsay MacDonald; but let me see whether I cannot find him for you." Then, as the record started again, I took the screw which regulates the speed and slowed the record down gradually until the high-pitched yapping changed to the deep tones of Mr. MacDonald's voice; and the unmusical quarrelsome, self-assertion became the melodious rhetoric of the Scottish orator. "There! I said: "that is Mr. MacDonald."

So you see, what you are hearing now is not my voice unless your gramophone is turning at exactly the right speed. I have records of famous singers and speakers who are dead, but whose voices I can remember quite well : Adelina Patti, Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Santley, Caruso, Tamagno; but they sound quite horrible and silly until I have found the right speed for them, as I found it for Mr. MacDonald.

Now, the worst of it is that I cannot tell you how to find the right speed for me. Those of you who have heard me speak, either face to face with me or over the wireless, will have no difficulty. You have just to change the speed until you recognize the voice you remember. But what are you to do if you have never heard me? Well, I can give you a hint that will help you. If what you hear is very disappointing, and you feel instinctively "that must be a horrid man," you may be quite sure the speed is wrong. Slow it down until you feel that you are listening to an amiable old gentleman of seventy-one with a rather pleasant Irish voice, then that is me. All the other people whom you hear at the other speeds are impostors: sham Shaws! Phantoms who never existed.

Record No. 2

I am now going to suppose that you are a foreign student of the English language; and that you desire to speak it well enough to be understood when you travel in the British Commonwealth or in America, or when you meet a native of those countries. Or it may be that you are yourself a native but that you speak in a provincial or cockney dialect of which you are a little ashamed, or which perhaps prevents you from obtaining some employment which is open to those only who speak what is called "correct English." Now, whether you are a foreigner or a native, the first thing I must impress on you is that there is no such thing as ideally correct English. No two British subjects speak exactly alike. I am a member of a committee established by the British Broadcasting Corporation for the purpose of deciding how the utterances of speakers employed by the Corporation should be pronounced in order that they should be a model of correct English speech for the British Islands. All the members of that Committee are educated persons whose speech would pass as correct and refined in any society or any employment in London. Our chairman is the Poet Laureate, who is not only an artist whose materials are the sounds of spoken English, but a specialist in their pronunciation. One of our members is Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, famous not only as an actor but for the beauty of his speech. I was selected for service on the Committee because, as a writer of plays, I am accustomed to superintend their rehearsals and to listen critically to the way in which they are spoken by actors who are by profession trained speakers (being myself a public speaker of long experience). That committee knows as much as anyone knows about English speech; and yet its members do not agree as to the pronunciation of some of the simplest and commonest words in the English language. The two simplest and commonest words in any language are "yes" and "no." But no two members of the committee pronounce them exactly alike. All that can be said is that every member pronounces them in such a way that they would not only be intelligible in every English-speaking country, but would stamp the speaker as a cultivated person as distinguished from an ignorant and illiterate one. You will say, "Well: that is good enough for me: that is how I desire to speak." But which member of the committee will you take for your model? There are Irish members, Scottish members, Welsh members, Oxford University members, American members: all recognizable as such by their differences of speech. They differ also according to the county in which they were born. Now, as they all speak differently, it is nonsense to say that they all speak correctly. All we can claim is that they all speak presentably, and that if you speak as they do, you will be understood in any English-speaking country and accepted as a person of good social standing. I wish I could offer you your choice among them as a model; but for the moment I am afraid you must put up with me — an Irishman.

Record No. 3

I have said enough to you about the fact that no two native speakers of English speak it alike; but perhaps you are clever enough to ask me whether I myself speak it in the same way.

I must confess at once that I do not. Nobody does. I am at present speaking to an audience of many thousands of gramophonists, many of whom are trying hard to follow my words, syllable by syllable. If I were to speak to you as carelessly as I speak to my wife at home, this record would be useless; and if I were to speak to my wife at home as carefully as I am speaking to you, she would think that I was going mad.

As a public speaker I have to take care that every word I say is heard distinctly at the far end of large halls containing thousands of people. But at home, when I have to consider only my wife sitting within six feet of me at breakfast, I take so little pains with my speech that very often, instead of giving me the expected answer, she says "Don't mumble; and don't turn your head away when you speak. I can't hear a word you are saying." And she also is a little careless. Sometimes I have to say "What?" two or three times during our meal; and she suspects me of growing deafer and deafer, though she does not say so, because, as I am now over seventy, it might be true.

No doubt I ought to speak to my wife as carefully as I should speak to a queen, and she to me as carefully as she would speak to a king. We ought to; but we don't. ("Don't," by the way, is short for "do not.")

We all have company manners and home manners. If you were to call on a strange family and to listen through the keyhole — not that I would suggest for a moment that you are capable of doing such a very unladylike or ungentlemanlike thing; but still — if, in your enthusiasm for studying languages you could bring yourself to do it just for a few seconds to hear how a family speak to one another when there is nobody else listening to them, and then walk into the room and hear how very differently they speak in your presence, the change would surprise you. Even when our home manners are as good as our company manners — and of course they ought to be much better — they are always different; and the difference is greater in speech than in anything else.

Suppose I forget to wind my watch, and it stops, I have to ask somebody to tell me the time. If I ask a stranger, I say "What o'clock is it?" The stranger hears every syllable distinctly. But if I ask my wife, all she hears is "cloxst." That is good enough for her; but it would not be good enough for you. So I am speaking to you now much more carefully than I speak to her; but please don't tell her!

Record No. 4

I am now going to address myself especially to my foreign hearers. I have to give them another warning of quite a different kind. If you are learning English because you intend to travel in England and wish to be understood there, do not try to speak English perfectly, because, if you do, no one will understand you. I have already explained that though there is no such thing as perfectly correct English, there is presentable English which we call "Good English"; but in London nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand people not only speak bad English but speak even that very badly. You may say that even if they do not speak English well themselves they can at least understand it when it is well spoken. They can when the speaker is English; but when the speaker is a foreigner, the better he speaks, the harder it is to understand him. No foreigner can ever stress the syllables and make the voice rise and fall in question and answer, assertion and denial, in refusal and consent, in enquiry or information, exactly as a native does. Therefore the first thing you have to do is to speak with a strong foreign accent, and speak broken English: that is, English without any grammar. Then every English person to whom you speak will at once know that you are a foreigner, and try to understand you and be ready to help you. He will not expect you to be polite and to use elaborate grammatical phrases. He will be interested in you because you are a foreigner, and pleased by his cleverness in making out your meaning and being able to tell you what you want to know. If you say "Will you have the goodness, Sir, to direct me to the railway terminus at Charing Cross," pronouncing all the vowels and consonants beautifully, he will not understand you, and will suspect you of being a beggar or a confidence trickster. But if you shout, "Please! Charing Cross! Which way!" you will have no difficulty. Half a dozen people will immediately overwhelm you with directions.

Even in private intercourse with cultivated people you must not speak too well. Apply this to your attempts to learn foreign languages, and never try to speak them too well. And do not be afraid to travel. You will be surprised to find how little you need to know or how badly you may pronounce. Even among English people, to speak too well is a pedantic affectation. In a foreigner it is something worse than an affectation: it is an insult to the native who cannot understand his own language when it is too well spoken. That is all I can tell you: the record will hold no more. Good-bye!

Published by
Linguaphone Institute Ltd.,
209 Regent Street, London, W.1