Sunday, September 25, 2016


A couple of days ago a dear friend asked me if the oft-quoted line "the British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language..." was actually something Shaw had coined. This quip, and slightly altered versions thereof, has been attributed to Shaw - often by illustrious people who actually met him. For example, The Shavian 6.5 (Spring 1987) includes a brief note that reads as follows: 

However, as the excellent, informative post by The Quote Investigator demonstrates, chances are Shaw never uttered those words; or, at least, as my own database seems to suggest, there is no reliable, extant record of the when and where. 

Given the futility of my sleuthing, I thought it would be a good idea to go over a few passages where Shaw refers to or comments on the English spoken in America - mind you, a rather different version of the language than the one we hear today; and far from being a single, unified variety for that matter.

Differences in semantics and usage between American and British English, for example, could have arguably confused visitors of the 1902 photographic exhibitions of the Linked Ring and the Royal Photographic Society. Shaw did not have a high opinion of one of Edward Steichen's works, but...

"To make matters worse, Mr. Steichen actually labels the lady with the cat in the American language. He calls her a "nude." This may be American modesty; but in English the adjective is only used substantively by old-fashioned dealers to denote a naughty French picture. This use of the word is also exemplified on the books entitled Nudes from the Paris Salon. Consequently English artists use the term Life Study, which is more accurate descriptively, and better grammar to boot." (Bernard Shaw on Photography, p. 88)

A working knowledge, then, of the differences between these two varieties of English is a good thing. Shaw seems to corroborate this notion in his review of Olivia (by W. G. Wills), published in the Saturday Review on 6 Feb. 1897. 

"Its success, if it does succeed, will be due mainly to the acting of Miss Cicely Richards, who pulls it through with great ability, seconded effectively by Mr Cockburn. Miss Esme Beringer's impersonation of the heroine, though altogether artificial, is clever; and Mr Courtenay Thorpe manages to play with some distinction as the father. Mr Abingdon is a comic American interviewer; but the part is beneath criticism. Besides, Mr Abingdon has no command of the American language." (The Drama Observed. Vol. II, p. 771).

This is not the only critical piece by Shaw where we find a reference to "the American language" as a simple way to sketch the idiolect of a performer, somewhat derisively. In Music in London (Vol. II, p. 236), a similar descriptive use of the phrase is made 

An American accent, in addition, does not guarantee a comfortable living - although the opposite is also true. See, for example, the following extract from one of Shaw's letters to Charlotte (31st Oct. 1897): 

"There is a young American musician-a Philadelphian genius-the only American I ever met without an American accent-at present starving in Paris in the usual way. His name is Philip Dalmas..." (Collected Letters, 1874-1897, p. 818)

It is also true, nevertheless, that one can never be too sure about Shaw's real opinion on this question. Let us be reminded of the anecdote included in Allan Chappelow's Shaw the Villager and Human Being - A Biographical Symposium (pp. 217-218)

"Another time I criticised a radio performance of Saint Joan in which the part of St. Joan had been played by an actress with a pronounced American accent. Shaw just roared with laughter, but later told me he had telephoned the B.B.C. about it and told them he did not hear the broadcast himself, but had been told that the actress was wonderful ! That was typical of G.B.S.-you never really knew how he was going to react."

After all, Homer also nods and Shaw - who was chewed out by a listener because of his "slovenly pronunciation" during a broadcast talk - entertained certain American idiosyncrasies in pronunciation. The following fragment, for example, can be read in L.W. Connoly's Bernard Shaw and the BBC (an adapted version was published in "Shaw and BBC English" in The Independent Shavian 42.3 (2004): 

This does not mean that Shaw did not know his American English - quite the contrary. However, some critics beg to differ - however misinformed their claim is. As David Matual points out in his "Shaw's The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet and Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness: Dramatic Kinship and Theological Opposition" (SHAW 1, p. 129), critics like H.L. Mencken "ridicule Shaw's inept reproduction of what he imagined to be American English."

At any rate, I believe what best summarizes Shaw's views on the power of language and what it means in a holistic sense (social, economic, literary, ritualistic) is his response to an adaptation of Hamlet in "contemporary American English" by Irvin Fiske: 

There's the rub!