Thursday, July 27, 2006



A couple of streets away from here is the house where 150 years ago yesterday George Bernard Shaw was born.

Shaw was a man of many parts. A crusading vegetarian, socialist and pacifist, he also devoted considerable time and energy to matters orthographical and campaigned for a reform of English spelling whereby the Latin alphabet would be replaced by a phonetic writing system. He put up a prize of £500 for a competition to find the best such system.

The shortcomings of the existing system he illustrated by pointing out that the word fish could equally be spelled ghoti (gh as in rough, o as in women, ti as in nation).

He also had the distinction of being the only writer to win both a Nobel Prize for literature and an Oscar for best screenplay. Nowadays, however, his works are deeply unfashionable, to the point that no theatre in his native city has thought it worthwhile marking the anniversary by putting on any of his many plays.

His epigrams, however, continue to fill books of quotations, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” being one of the better known.

Switching between TV news broadcasts tonight on the US network CBS and Britain’s BBC and SkyNews, I note that the division is ever-present, although I’m not sure it’s primarily linguistic. While both the British channels led with lengthy and detailed reports, complete with flak-jacketed war correspondents at the scene, of the destruction by Israeli bombers of an apartment block in Tyre, the same incident barely merited a mention on the US network, and this only as background in a soft-news piece about the evacuation of US citizens.

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