Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

George Bernard Shaw? Mallory Browne? Raymond Gram Swing? Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The influential Irish playwright and commentator George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a humorous remark about language. Here are four versions:

1) Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.
2) The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.
3) England and America are two countries separated by one language.
4) The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by the same language.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1887 the Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde published a short story called “The Canterville Ghost”.[ref] 1891, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost, Start Page 90, Quote Page 94, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref] While describing one of the main characters, the narrator included a comical remark contrasting England and America that was similar to the saying under examination. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1908, Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde, Section: Miscellaneous Contributions to Magazines Periodicals, etc., Bibliography, Quote Page 336, Methuen and Company, London. (This book specifies the dates of first appearances of the two parts of “The Canterville Ghost”) (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts in September 1942. Mallory Browne who was the “Monitor” reporter based in London traveled to the countryside to conduct an interview with George Bernard Shaw:[ref] 1942 September 5, The Christian Science Monitor, Section: Weekly Magazine Section, How Now, Mr. Shaw? by Mallory Browne, Start Page WM1, Quote Page WM7, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language!” On the way down to see him at a mutual friend’s house in the country, I reflected delightfully on this typical remark of Bernard Shaw. I had read it only a few days before, and been struck by its essentially Shavian character; completely false in fact, yet so much closer to the truth than merely factual statements ever are.

Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who located the above citation and shared it with fellow researchers. Browne commented that he had read the remark a short time earlier; hence, it was already in circulation. Yet, an earlier source has not yet been located. Also, QI and other researchers have been unable to find the saying in Shaw’s oeuvre.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A 1906 edition of Shaw’s play “Caesar and Cleopatra” contained an appended section of notes. Shaw wrote a thematically related comment about language that highlighted the differences between nationalities with a shared language:[ref] 1906, Caesar and Cleopatra: A Page of History by Bernard Shaw, Section: Notes, Quote Page 120, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

We have men of exactly the same stock, and speaking the same language, growing in Great Britain, in Ireland, and in America. The result is three of the most distinctly marked nationalities under the sun.

In 1923 “The New York Times” presented a humorous remark attributed to Shaw about sharing a language. This joke differed from the one being traced:[ref] 1923 March 2, New York Times, Section: Editorial, Untitled Item, Quote Page 14, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

At the Pilgrims’ Dinner in London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Baldwin, remarked that “the fact that we speak a common language” is really sometimes a hindrance to good relations between Great Britain and America. He may have been vaguely recalling what Bernard Shaw once said, that the use of a common language merely enabled England and America to understand the “insults” offered by the representatives of one to those of the other.

In 1924 “Harper’s Magazine” published an article titled “A Dialogue on Things In General between George Bernard Shaw and Archibald Henderson”. Shaw spoke about the positive and negative implications of a common language:[ref] May 1924, Harper’s Magazine, A Dialogue on Things In General Between George Bernard Shaw and Archibald Henderson, Start Page 705, Quote Page 708, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Harper’s Magazine online archive)[/ref]

I think there should be an alliance of all the peoples who are psychologically homogeneous enough to share one another’s ideas. A common language certainly makes an alliance easier; though you must not forget that it also makes quarreling easier. The Americans and Chinese may utter endless insults to each other and be none the worse, because neither understands the other; but an American insult to the English or an English insult to the Americans might lead to a war. As a matter of fact, Anglo-American relations have always been strained for this very reason. No quarrels are as frequent and angry as family quarrels.

In 1930 an Ohio newspaper published a piece by Glenn Frank who was the President of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the former editor of “The Century” magazine. Frank presented another jest about language that he attributed to Shaw:[ref] 1930 June 14, Youngstown Vindicator, The American Voice by Glenn Frank, (President of University of Wisconsin and Famous Editor), Quote Page 6, Youngstown, Ohio. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

Distinguished Americans and distinguished Britons were at dinner under the auspices of the English-speaking Union in London. An oratorical American was concluding his address. “We are one people,” he said. “We are of the same blood. We drink at the springs of the same literature. We speak the same language.”

“Yes,” said Bernard Shaw, “we speak the same language, but through a different organ.” The American voice is notoriously nasal, flat, tense, high-pitched.

In 1936 an article in “The New York Times” ascribed a viewpoint to Shaw about the relations between England and Ireland that hinged on a shared language:[ref] 1936 June 30, New York Times, Topics of The Times, Quote Page 18, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

This leaves out of account Bernard Shaw’s opposite contention that the Irish dislike the English so much because Irishmen have learned to speak the English language; whereas America and France have no common language in which to quarrel.

In September 1942 a reporter in “The Christian Science Monitor” stated that he had read the following quip ascribed to Shaw. This citation was presented previously in this article:

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language!”

In October 1942 “The Listener” magazine of the BBC printed a transcript of a radio broadcast which included remarks made by an American commentator named Raymond Gram Swing who attributed an instance of the quip to Shaw:[ref] 1942 October 29, The Listener, Volume 28, Number 720, Britain and America Today: John G. Winant (speaking from London) introduces a Transatlantic discussion between Raymond Gram Swing and S. K. Ratcliffe; Lord Halifax (speaking from America) sums up, Start Page 549, Quote Page 550, Column 1, Published by British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (The Listener Archive: Gale NewsVault)[/ref]

Swing: I wonder. When we discussed this subject in 1930 we talked mostly about the need for knowledge and understanding. British knowledge of America was inadequate then and American knowledge of Britain was not so much better. And in the meantime I should say that what our two peoples actually know of each other has not grown to be anything like enough. Don’t forget what Bernard Shaw said: that we are two peoples separated by a common language.

In November 1942 the quip was widely disseminated when it was printed in a section called “Picturesque Speech and Patter” of “Reader’s Digest” magazine. This instance differed from the version in “The Listener” because it referred to “two countries” instead of “two peoples” and used the phrase “same language” instead of “common language”:[ref] 1942 November, Reader’s Digest, Volume 41, Picturesque Speech and Patter, Quote Page 100, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

England and America are two countries separated by the same language.
(Bernard Shaw)

In December 1942 the syndicated columnist Joseph Fort Newton presented another variant of the Shavian saying to his readers:[ref] 1942 December 14, The Greensboro Record, Everyday Living by Joseph Fort Newton, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Greensboro, North Carolina. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

English people knew little of America, and cared less about it. On our side the case was no better—actually it was worse. Bernard Shaw was right: “England and America are two countries separated by one language.”

In February 1943 the “San Francisco Chronicle” of San Francisco, California published remarks made by Sir Gerald Campbell, the British Minister to the United States. Campbell addressed the Commonwealth Club, and he attributed a variant of the jest to Shaw:[ref] 1943 February 17, San Francisco Chronicle, Sir Gerald Campbell: The British Minister Make Several Predictions About the Post-War Setup, Quote Page 11, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

As George Bernard Shaw said: ‘We are separated entirely by a common language.’ We have got to create and form a public opinion, not just at election time.

In May 1943 a columnist in a San Bernardino, California newspaper presented another version of the saying:[ref] 1943 May 16, The San Bernardino County Sun, Take My Word For It by Frank Colby, Quote Page 16, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “The British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common tongue,” is a clever epigram that, like most epigrams, is wittier than it is truthful, for the British and Americans speak, not the same tongue, but separate dialects that sprang from the same tongue.

In June 1943 a newspaper in Bellingham, Washington printed an instance attributed to Shaw:[ref] 1943 June 15, The Bellingham Herald, Anglo-Yankee Problems, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Bellingham, Washington. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language,” has some merit. . .

In 1944 another prominent intellectual based in Britain, Bertrand Russell, wrote a piece in “The Saturday Evening Post” that included a thematically similar remark:[ref] 1944 June 3, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 216 Issue 49, Can Americans and Britons be Friends? by Bertrand Russell, Start Page 14, Quote Page 57, Column 2 and 3, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Ebsco MasterFILE Premier)[/ref]

It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language. A Frenchman in America is not expected to talk like an American, but an Englishman speaking his mother tongue is thought to be affected and giving himself airs.

In conclusion, there is some evidence that George Bernard Shaw made a statement about Britain and America of the following type: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. However, the expression has been located neither in his writings nor in an interview. Also, many variant phrasings have proliferated over the years. Hence, there is some residual uncertainty about the quotation and its ascription. Perhaps future researchers will discover more.

Oscar Wilde can be credited with writing the excerpt from the 1887 short story “The Canterville Ghost” presented at the beginning of this article. The jest was similar to the remark attributed to Shaw many years later.

(Great thanks to Brian Zack whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Fred R. Shapiro, Stephen Goranson, and other discussants on the ADS mailing list. Shapiro located the September 5, 1942 citation and Goranson located the October 29, 1942 citation. Special thanks to Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University for accessing the scans of “The Listener”. In addition, thanks to Oscar Wilde researcher John Cooper who mentioned the Wilde and Russell quotations.)

Update History: On October 30, 2016 citations dated September 5, 1942; December 14, 1942; and June 3, 1944 were added. The conclusion was rewritten.

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