Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What is the origin of the phrase "two nations divided by a common language"?

I have seen it attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and even Winston Churchill.

The most likely looking source I found said:

‘Was it Wilde or Shaw?’ The answer appears to be: both. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’. However, the 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley) quotes Shaw as saying: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’, but without giving a source. The quote had earlier been attributed to Shaw in Reader’s Digest (November 1942).

So, I wonder if the phrase which has come into common usage is just a commonly used paraphrase, or whether it has a specific source of its own.

Also, although I have only heard it used in the context of Britain and America, I wonder if that's its only usage.

share|improve this question
1  
Recently, someone has become to use this phrase in Italy, too; here we have a common language (the Tuscany dialect, also known as Italian language) and two country; Settentrional Italy and Meridional Italy. –  user19148 Jul 16 '12 at 22:11
    
See here for further data: oscarwildeinamerica.org/quotations/common-language.html –  user23963 Jul 23 '12 at 16:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

If we can trust Google hits then it's George Bernard Shaw. Skimming some sites that pop up when searching for Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill I recognized that all those pages do have one in common: They either conclude "No, they didn't" or "Whoever it said".

To pick some examples where George Bernard Shaw is named as origin:

The first source discussing differences between British and American English and how the division evolved states George Bernard Shaw as origin.

The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw once said: 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language'

And here again George Bernard Shaw is stated as origin but the other names are also mentioned.

Well, it likely is Shaw, actually, who said “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” And you can quote him on that, because he also has been credited with saying, “I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”


Well, about the second part of your question. I don't think so. I live in Germany and with Austria and Switzerland there are two countries which do speak the same (or just a similar) language. But I've never heard that sentence in relation to these countries.

Besides the mentioned example I can't, off the top of my head, think of any other countries where it could be likely to be used as well, thus I conclude:
Yes, it's the only usage in the context of Britain and America.

share|improve this answer

Churchill made it popular when he used this variant: "Americans and British are one people separated by a common language."

share|improve this answer
    
The OP has already said that it has been attributed to Churchill: do you have an actual source? –  TimLymington Jun 2 at 22:32

It was Shaw, according to quote number 31 on Page 638, the fourth edition Oxford Dictionary of Quotations states:

"England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Attributed in this and other forms, but not found in Shaw's published writings."

share|improve this answer

The phrase's popularity may be spreading to other languages. In 1996 Dutch literar scholar Ton Anbeek used it (though without providing a source) to point to the difference between the variants of Dutch spoken in the northern part of Belgium (Flanders) and the Netherlands in an article (in Dutch) published in the Flemish literary journal Dietsche Warande en Belfort.

I briefly refer to Anbeek's use of the phrase in my discussion of literature by authors of African descent in Flanders: Bekers, Elisabeth. "Chronicling Beyond Abyssinia: African Writing in Flanders, Belgium." In Transcultural Modernities: Narrating Africa in Europe. Ed. Elisabeth Bekers, Sissy Helff and Daniela Merolla. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009. 57-69.

share|improve this answer
2  
Although your answer ably illustrates the other usage of the phrase apart from the context of Britain and America, it fails to answer the original question about the origin of the phrase. –  KeyBrd Basher Mar 6 '13 at 10:08
    
From The Rotarian, 1950: "To George Bernard Shaw is attributed the pronouncement that the U.S.A. and Great Britain are separated by the same language. One could say the same of The Netherlands and Flanders." –  Hugo Mar 7 '13 at 7:54

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.