Shaw explains that he has chosen to make the hero of Pygmalion a phonetician in order to bring to light the need for reform of the English language. English spelling and pronunciation is an impossible, out-dated hodge-podge that has no standard, which can be taught. No one can speak English without another speaker somewhere despising his version of the language.
Shaw became interested in phonetics in the 1870s. He knew several famous phoneticians. He believed Henry Sweet, a young professor of phonetics at Oxford, to be the most brilliant among them, but when he attempted to draw him into the limelight by giving him an opportunity to write an essay in a prominent magazine, Sweet wrote a libelous article about a man in a position he thought could only be performed by a phonetician. Shaw determined that Sweet was too scornful of academia to ever suffer the politics required to make his theories known. Sweet invented the Current Shorthand, which is mentioned in the third act of the play. This phonetic code could express every sound in the English language distinctly. It never prevailed over the more popular Pitman system of shorthand, even though it was easier to write. Shaw suggests that the English simply enlarge their alphabet to cover all the sounds in the language and change their system of spelling to be as directly related to pronunciation as Spanish is. Higgins, the hero of Pygmalion, is not a portrait of Sweet. If Sweet had as much charisma as Higgins he would have been eminently famous. His temperament sentenced him to obscurity. Shaw does not intend Higgins to portray any specific phonetician, only to impress the English people with the important role of phonetics in modern England.
"If the play makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among its most important people in England at present, it will serve its turn." Preface, pg. 9
Shaw goes on to boast of the popular success of his play, and assert that, contrary to the suggestions of his critics, all great art must be didactic. Finally, he encourages those readers of his play, who aspire to climb the social ladder by altering their accents, that they can be successful if they study under a phonetic expert.