Review: Mother Tongue: The English Language

Mother TongueMother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson, London: Penguin Books, 1990 (link is to a different, in-print edition).

Summary: This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

Has it every occurred to you how many different meanings there are for the word fly? It can be an insect, a means of travel, a verb form of “to flee”, something a fisherman ties, one of the results of a batter hitting a baseball, or something no man wants open in public. As in so many of Bryson’s books, he had me at the opening page as he explored some of the perplexities of our language that native speakers negotiate almost without thought. He had me in the first chapter as he proposed that part of the success of the language is the incredible richness of vocabulary (at the time of publication, the OED had 615,000 words), flexibility of usage, and relative simplicity, particularly in comparison to tonal languages of rendering the language in print.

He surveys the history of language, the world’s language families and where English is situated in the Indo-European stream, and all the other offshoots, some which are no longer living languages. He recounts the triumph of Anglo-Saxon language over Celtic (even though many of England’s place names preserve their Celtic roots), the impact of the Norman invasion (of 10,000 words, approximately 3/4ths are still in use including much of the language of nobility (duke, baron prince) and much language of jurisprudence (justice, jury, prison among others). He explores the different ways words are created, sometimes by doing nothing! His discussion of pronunciation and particularly the shifts in vowel sounds was fascinating, For example house was once pronounced hoose. You weren’t born in a barn but barn in a born.

Then there is the matter of spelling and the role of printing and dictionaries in bring a greater if not complete uniformity to spelling–is it ax or axejudgment or judgement (it is fascinating that the spell check in this word processor highlighted the latter of these two, and yet both are accepted with the shortened forms preferred). Of course so much of this discussion is the concern of some to promote the good and proper use of the language, and yet what is fascinating is the shifting ideas through history of what this is, according to Bryson. Similarly, we have the divergences between New World and Old and some wonder whether American English will become a distinct language.

Bryson’s concluding chapters explore the origins of proper names, our propensity for wordplay, and the history of what are now considered vulgarities (although I think since Bryson wrote, what was censored in from public media in my youth is becoming more and more common). What is fascinating is that many of these were once in common parlance in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Equally fascinating are our various forms of wordplay, the ultimate of which must be the palindrome where a sentence says the same thing forwards and backwards (an example from the book: “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.”)

Anyone who writes can understand the challenges of finding the right rather than the almost right word, and how easy it is to think you are saying one thing only to be understood by others as saying the opposite. I found Bryson’s book a delightful diversion that better helped me understand both the joy of using this language and the frustrations of rendering the conceptions of mind into words that communicate.

One thought on “Review: Mother Tongue: The English Language

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2015 | Bob on Books

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