In the preface to the 1916 edition of "Pygmalion", George Bernard Shaw expressed his idea for creating Henry Higgins, the English Phonetics Professor, in the following words, "the reformer England needs ... an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play."
Unlike in the case with Eliza Doolittle, there wasn't one particular person that inspired the creation of Henry Higgins, however, as he continued in the preface to the 1916 edition, there were some unintentional traces of Henry Sweet, the contemporary English language linguist and phonetician, in Henry Higgins's personality.
Just like Henry Higgins in "Pygmalion", Sweet was known to be able to produce over 72 vowels in a number of English dialects. On top of that, Sweet would stand before a group of English speakers on the streets, taking notes of their speech and then sending postcards to his friends with the transcribed messages he had heard.
Another accomplished Phonetics professor of the time was Daniel Jones whose refined speech and dedication to the standard British pronunciation (Received pronunciation) made him one of the most prominent phoneticians of the early 20th century. Incidentally, Daniel Jones's laboratory inspired Higgins's, yet one must admit that regardless of all the similarities with the most acclaimed Phonetics professors of the time "the Higgins character...would appear to have taken on a vivid life of its own during the writing of the play."
What kind of dialect did Professor Higgins work with when he tried to make Eliza Doolittle into a fine lady? I will write about it more in the next post. In the meantime, please watch one of my favorite songs from My Fair Lady Musical where Professor Higgins expresses his disgust with the English language he hears on the streets, in particular that of a young flower girl, soon-to-be "the fair lady", Eliza Doolittle.