13 August 2010

Divided by a common language

The Parker Library in Cambridge has the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon or Old English manuscripts

Patrick Comerford

It is often said that Britain and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” But who said it first?

Some ascribe this witticism to Winston Churchill, others attribute it to George Bernard Shaw and to Oscar Wilde. Either would be interesting, for both are Irish writers.

In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Oscar Wilde wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” George Bernard Shaw, according to the Treasury of Humorous Quotations (1951), once said: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”

Similar things have been said by both Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas. Bertrand Russell once wrote: “It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language.” Shortly before his death, Dylan Thomas said European writers and scholars in America were “up against the barrier of a common language.”

It would be interesting if this observation was first made by either Wilde or Shaw, for both were Dublin-born writers and must have known that Ireland is already divided not by borders, politics or religion, but by the way we speak English in different parts of the island.

I was having a conversation recently with someone I know for years. We share some family connections, he is a teacher, and our sons are around the same age. Naturally, the conversation turned to his sons and their education.

“Ah, you know,” I thought I heard him say about his younger son, “he’s having problems with the Old English.”

Now, I hate the way so many people use the phrase “you know” in Ireland. I usually don’t know – otherwise I why would I wait to hear what they have to say. It’s a phrase used to draw breath while a speaker seek to draw together his thoughts, or used by sports commentators or a conjunction to draw together conflicting ideas while managing to monopolise the camera and the microphone.

And I didn’t know what he meant, as I soon found out.

At first I was about to tell him I didn’t know his son was studying Old English. Immediate questions came to mind. Why did he decide to study Old English? Where was he studying it?

Indeed, I was about to say I never knew he was interested in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. I wanted to ask whether he was having problems reading Old English literature such as Beowulf. Was he not excited by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle? Did he have difficulties with Bede or Caedmon?

A few weeks earlier I had been given a guided tour of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which houses nearly a quarter of all extant Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, and where I was show the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Perhaps he might have been better off studying Middle English, I thought. After all, the language of Chaucer and Langland are easier to master, and there are the deep spiritual riches of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

But I bit my tongue. He was hardly interested in my summer sojourn in Cambridge. And perhaps, I thought for a fleeting moment, he had problems not with the Old English language but with the Old English – the families descended from those people who came to Ireland after the Normans arrived in 1169-1171, and who settled in “The Pale” – families with names like Butler, Cantwell, FitzGerald and … Comerford.

Surely no-one could have problems with us?

I bit my tongue, and he continued: “Ah, you know, the English syllabus … that oul’ syllabus covers so much, it’s very demanding.”

Ah, now I know. He said oul’. Not old. Silly me!

It’s just as well he didn’t confide his son was having problems with the “Oul’ Maths.” I might have thought he meant Old Math. Old Math, New Math, I could never figure them out; that’s why I’m innumerate.

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