Monday, April 26, 2010

Uncommon Language

Poet Dana Gioia, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, has a new book on British poetry called Barrier of A Common Language.  The title comes from a famous comment made by Dylan Thomas.

Differences in British and American vocabularies are legion.   You’re familiar with many of them: lift/elevator, biscuit/cookie, potato crisps/potato chips, chips/French fries, petrol/gasoline, lorry/truck, and on and on.  The differences are so many that you have to wonder how this “barrier of a common language” is ever overcome.

But who was it that first came up with this epigram about that barrier?  Was it Thomas?  Or Winston Churchill, who is often credited with the remark?  Or George Bernard Shaw, who is cited in a dictionary of quotations for having said something similar?  Or was it that epigrammatist par excellence Oscar Wilde?  Apparently, it was all of them.

A  blogger in England, who writes under the name Scriptor Senex (the Old Man Writer), posted this meticulously documented clarification:

            Sometimes the inquirer asks, ‘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).

            Much the same idea occurred to Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944): ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’, and in a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published after it in The Listener, April 1954) - European writers and scholars in America were, he said, ‘up against the barrier of a common language’.

            Inevitably this sort of dubious attribution has also been seen: ‘Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language’ (The Times, 26 January 1987; The European, 22 November 1991).

It seems, then, that there are hardly any British writers in the last hundred years who have not said something similar.  Trying desperately to get in on the act, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wrote the following mid-Atlantic verses:

            A Briton who seemed a bit squiffed
            Tried to board an American lift.
                        But that elevator
                        Was just a dumbwaiter,
            And the Brit wouldn’t fit—catch my drift?
            A Yank who was driving in Soho
            Found that his car wouldn’t go.
                        “Have you got gas?”
                        He asked a young lass,
            Who said, “Yes—but ‘twill pass, don’t you know.” 

            An Englishman said, "I surmise
            When my PC from America dies,
                          And the sounds of its blips
                          Say it needs microchips, 
            Then I'll give it a small side of fries."


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