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[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

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“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]

Thoughts on English Pronunciation and Spelling

In 9th grade, I had a “study skills” class that reviewed the basics of English grammar and honed writing skills. Mr. Twegbe emphasized correct grammar and perfect spelling. Every class began with a spelling quiz that comprised of five words. It’s not until I read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue that I realize no other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently. The one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling does not hold true in English. Over a long period of time there is a tendency to compress and mangle words. Despite slip-ups and slurping, we are usually good at distinguishing between the most subtle gradations of sounds. Nut pronunciation does not often correspond to the spelling. Indeed spellings in English can be treacherous, and opportunities for flummoxing so abundant, that even the authorities themselves sometimes stumble. Is it millennium or millenium? Irresistable or irresistible? Despite anomalies, English language possesses three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings—the irregularity and anomaly Mr. Twegbe addressed. The consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.—and, above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so many people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.

Reading “Mother Tongue”

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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.