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Reading “Mother Tongue”

1mothertongue

Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is funny and informative. He explains how English is a global language, more flexible and versatile athan any other languages because despite many booby traps of the language, English still has some of the simplest spellings and pronunciation.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, but good enough for general reading. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language include: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, pendant, and some 1700 others?

Bryson reassures us not to worry about American English and English English are drifting apart so remorselessly that one day the two nations may not be able to understand each other at all. But if Briton and American of the future baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won’t confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. The Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refuelling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages.

4 Responses

  1. Really interesting; I’m going to look for this. It’s interesting: I talked with a couple from Nicaragua this weekend. Our hosts were saying they have trouble understanding people who have different American dialects–Southern, for instance–but the non-native speakers said they heard no difference between dialects–it all sounds American to them. Thanks for a thought-provoking review!

    • It’s a very accessible book to read, not so much pedantic as it is informative. It gives you a global perspective of how and why one language survives and another doesn’t, even if a language id not widely spoken.

  2. I’ll definitely add the book to my list. I studied some linguistics and loved it – hadn’t heard of this book, though. Thanks!

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