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A Common Language?

May 28, 2002

George Bernard Shaw once quipped that England and America were two countries divided by a common language.

There’s enough truth in that to make it funny. But it would be truer to say it of different generations.

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 Shakespeare’s 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 I’ve 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 Polonius’s 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). Shakespeare’s ironies are lost on them.

[Breaker quote: Learning several Englishes]Later on, when I was a journalist with an interest in politics, I saw that I’d 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 Caesar’s 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 didn’t 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. Today’s politicians, even those with Ivy League educations, can’t 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 today’s politicians — well, maybe the less said, the better.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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