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[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

1mothertongue

“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. I am Dutch and I think that the writer of this book is a bit to full of his own language English. That English is so widespread has to do with the British Empire. By emigration, colonisation it spread itself over the globe. I agree the beautiful literature in English but so has a lot of other nations. In my opinion English is as difficult or easy as another language. I can state that because I learned English, German and French. In fact you could say that Dutch is a sort of foreign language because I speak a dialect widely used in official, social and family occasion. I consider this dialect as my mother tongue.

    • Another way to look at it is that Bryson is passionate about English. He does point out very interesting facts about the language and how it spread. I am Chinese, was born and raised in colonial Hong Kong, and I was in touch with English at an very early age. I didn’t find it easy to learn, especially all the inflections and clauses. But I do find English easier than German and French.

  2. Very nice review! I’ve been meaning to pick up something by Bill Bryson and this would be a great pick. Keep up the wonderful work.🙂

    • This book is my first Bryson because I just can’t give the subject matter a pass. It’s well-written and informative, in spite of the facts that many readers have given it a bad review owing to inaccurate facts in the first chapter, which, in my opinion, is most general and least interesting.

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