A Common Language?
May 28, 2002
George Bernard Shaw once quipped that England and
America were two countries divided by a common language.
truth in that to make it funny. But it would be truer to say it of different
In college I studied
English literature and, though I took to Shakespeare like a duck to water, I
was often bored and baffled by other classics. I wondered what I could do
with an English major in the real world, besides teaching Shakespeare,
which was all I wanted to do.
Most people find
Shakespeare tough going because his language is so remote from the way
we talk now. I was lucky enough to have good teachers and see some
excellent performances, and Shakespeares language thrilled me
from the start. I also had to read the footnotes, of course, but the sound of
his eloquence carried me over all the minor difficulties of obsolete words.
Oddly enough, I found
much more difficulty in reading more recent authors, even though their
English was superficially more familiar and the obsolete words were
relatively few. At first I thought it was simply because they were so far
inferior to Shakespeare; but that was only part of the problem, since
nearly everyone is far inferior to Shakespeare, including other writers
Ive always loved.
It took me years to
realize how differently every generation speaks English. Even many people
who love Shakespeare take only a few nuggets from him famous
lines, brief passages, proverbial stories and pretty much ignore
the rest. These are the sort of readers who think Poloniuss speech
to his son To thine own self be true, et cetera
is a summary of human wisdom, without realizing that it comes
from a fool (who also spies on his son). Shakespeares ironies are
lost on them.
Later on, when I was a journalist with an interest in politics, I
saw that Id blundered into the right major. English literature
equipped me to read several English languages, as spoken and written by
different generations on both sides of the Atlantic.
When I first tried to
read the greatest American political classic, The Federalist
Papers, I found myself baffled again. The authors, Hamilton,
Madison, and Jay, were writing about the U.S. Constitution, but not in a
way that was familiar or meaningful to me. I understood nearly every
word they wrote, in a literal sense, but I had to read laboriously, in much
the way I had read Julius Caesars account of the Gallic wars in my
high-school Latin class. They hardly seemed to be discussing the same
Constitution we discuss nowadays. Not their words, but their meaning had
become almost archaic. I needed decades to comprehend it reasonably
well. Most of that time was spent unlearning what I once assumed I knew.
As with Shakespeare,
we may think we grasp The Federalist Papers and the
Constitution it expounds when, in truth, we are only grasping some of the
pieces, not the whole. We are divided from the founding generation by a
common language. Or what appears to be one.
Last year, as I was
studying the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates for my own book on
Lincoln, it struck me that neither man showed any familiarity with the
thought of The Federalist Papers. Lincoln was a great
rhetorician, and he adorned his speeches with familiar phrases from
Shakespeare; but he obviously didnt know the poet very well. He
spoke the language of his own day with real power, including the borrowed
power of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. For a self-taught man
with little formal education, he was a marvel. But he hardly knew the
older English of the American founding. If he had known it better, the Civil
War might have been averted. But that English belonged to a conversation
he had never known.
Lincoln himself has
suffered the usual fate of classics: he is best known for a few memorable
snippets and otherwise ignored. Todays politicians, even those
with Ivy League educations, cant speak his English. It may look
very much like our English, but it has an entirely different orientation. It
too belongs to a forgotten conversation.
As for the English of
todays politicians well, maybe the less said, the better.