Divided by a Common Language

While pundits began sifting through the fallout from Brexit, Google Trends reported that Britons searched for answers to two questions:

“What is Brexit?”

“What is the EU?”

In case you missed it, Chicken Little was right. The sky fell — on the European Union and on world markets. But even after Britain voted to exit (thus Brexit) from the EU, Brits were still trying to figure out what it was they voted for.

Oy Britannia!

One immediate benefit of Brexit was that it rained on the EU parade to French-fry Israel and serve it to the Palestinians.

We had our own reverse Brexit on July 4, 1776. When we left Britain, we took the language with us, but we gave the language a new constitution.

About our “common language,” I should tell you that George Bernard Shaw never wrote, “England and America are two nations divided by a common language” (or “separated by the same language,” as Reader’s Digest quoted in 1942 — without a source). Shaw may have said it. But, as Ralph Keyes reported (Quote Verifier), the Library of Congress could not find it in any of his writings.

Now that I told you what Shaw didn’t write, I feel duty-bound to tell you something he did write:

“The Jews are worse than my own people. Those Jews who still want to be the chosen race (chosen by the late Lord Balfour) can go to Palestine and stew in their own juice. The rest had better stop being Jews and start being human beings” (Literary Digest, October 22, 1932). On his 87th birthday (July 27, 1943), Shaw issued a statement defining anti-Semitism as “hatred of the lazy, ignorant, fat-headed Gentile for the pertinacious Jew who, schooled by adversity to use his brains to the utmost, outdoes him in business.”

To borrow his own phrase, the image we get of Shaw is “too true to be good.”

I became aware of the gap between American and British English when I was in Israel in 1966. First, I found that my Hebrew wasn’t up to industrial strength. (And my Yiddish was Americanized by what Leo ­Rosten called “Yinglish” and “Ameridish.”)

I also discovered that official English in Israel was post-Mandate ­British. Street signs, Anglo newspapers and radio programs were all in the Queen’s English. (I’m from Kings County.) And that’s not counting deciphering the Orwellian newspeak of BBC reports about Israel.

I had to learn that “take the lift to the flat” doesn’t mean to jack up a car to change a flat tire. It means to take the elevator to the apartment. Checking from bonnet to boot doesn’t mean from head to toe. It means checking the car from the hood to the trunk. And If I didn’t want to lose my place in line, I had to take my queues.

But English is not just British and American anymore. The end product of centuries of conquest, culture, commerce and computers is ­Global English. Linguist David Crystal called it “world Englishes.” There is more than one English today. As English spread to other countries, people adapted the language to their local needs and reshaped it.

How long does it take for a language to begin to change? Not decades or years, Crystal said, but weeks. When the Puritans came to America in 1607, they saw things and people that they had never seen before. And they started using new words like moccasin, wigwam and skunk. And they would use these words in letters they sent back home.

But in America, the transformation of English was more than a natural evolutionary process. It was revolutionary. In fact it was ­Revolutionary.

When you hear “dictionary,” what’s the first name you think of?

Right. … Noah Webster was more than just a lexicographer — what Samuel Johnson called “a harmless drudge.” He was a Revolutionary patriot who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends.

Before Webster, “the dictionary,” meant Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. But, as Jack Lynch wrote (The Lexicographer’s Dilemma), the Revolutionary leaders were ambivalent about Johnson. They maintained near reverence for his scholarship, but they were trying to break free of all things British.

Johnson disdained the rebellious colonists and was “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

Webster rebelliously called his magnum opus American Dictionary of the English Language. Fully a third of it was lifted from Johnson, but as Mary Norris pointed out (Between You and Me), Webster, a deeply religious man, only appropriated what he deemed appropriate.

Webster, thumbing his nose at Johnson — and King George — wrote, “The people of England must look to an American Dictionary for a correct understanding” of words describing life in the United States.

G-d bless America! And this July 4th, I will ask, “What is the U.K.?”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.

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