Learn English – the origin of the phrase “two nations divided by a common language”


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.

Best Answer

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.