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.

  • 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
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 22:11
  • See here for further data: oscarwildeinamerica.org/quotations/common-language.html
    – user23963
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 16:41
  • 1
    It is axiomatic that any unattributable saying will be attributed to Wilde, Shaw, and Churchill.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 21:21

7 Answers 7


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.

  • Of late I have read quite a few comments in Dutch newspapers that Flemish and Dutch are going down the path of mutual unintelligibility, Belgians not reading Dutch newspapers and books and vice versa. So perhaps in twenty years time the phrase might apply to these two branches of the same language. Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 15:37

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."

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    It's attributed to Shaw, but not found in any of his published works. It might be more accurate to say, we don't know for sure. Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 19:12

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.

  • 4
    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.
    – Sayan
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 10:08
  • 1
    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
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 7:54

In the 1970 movie "Patton", George C. Scott's title character said the quote & cited Mr. Shaw by name as the source in a speech during wartime England. While I admit it isn't 100% irrefutable. I'm willing to bet the screenwriters were probably old enough to have heard or read about it first hand to make it work in the script. The fact that they used Shaw as the source has got to be more than a coincidence.


This is also true of Portugal and Brazil. With the overwhelming majority of the world's Portuguese speakers being Brazilian, Portugal finally capitulated and decreed that the Brazilian form would be the accepted standard. It did not make much sense to let the tail wag the dog.

There is more variation in Spanish as spoken in various countries, than the variation among English speakers in UK, Canada, US, Australia, NZ, etc. I do not know what importance the different nations attach to it.


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

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    The OP has already said that it has been attributed to Churchill: do you have an actual source? Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 22:32

Churchill used the phrase in a speech to congress in 1941 or 1942.


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