Mother Tongue – The English Language by Bill Bryson

I’m not terribly fond of non-fiction but I love Bill Bryson so I was optimistic about this book. It definitely did not disappoint although I think his travel-related books are way better. Then again, he managed to write a book about the history of a language and make it light and  interesting and even funny which is no small feat.

The subject of the book may by the English language but in the first few chapters it deals with speech and how our predecessors started using speech to communicate, and the very first languages and how they evolved into the multitude of languages in the world today. I found this very interesting, especially all the similarities and common heritage of languages than now seem completely unrelated.

Of course, as the title suggests, the focus is on english and, from chapter to chapter we follow the various transformations of the language through the ages. Bryson sprinkles these chapters with trivia and of course his own, unique comments, which is what keeps the book from being dry and textbook-like. I have to admit though that I did get a little bored two thirds in the book when the focus was on different dialects of english. Still, the chapters on british and american english, names and swearing that follow are not only interesting but also rather amusing.

Here are some of my favourite passages:

“One of which, incidentally, is said to be the longest word in the English language. It begins with methianyglutaminyl and finishes 1913 letters later as alynalalanylthreonilarginylserase. I don’t know what it is used for, though I daresay it would take some rubbing to get it out of the carpet.”

“…whereas a reference to a woman’s fanny – which to an American is an innocent synonym for the buttocks – would at a British dinner party provoke an embarrassed silence. (you may recognize the voice of experience in this.)”

“As a congressman quite seriously told Dr David Edwards, head of the Joint National Committee on Languages, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.’”

“…Samuel Johnson was congratulated by a woman for leaving indecent words out of his dictionary. To which he devastatingly replied: ‘So you’ve been looking for them, have you, Madam?’”



2 thoughts on “Mother Tongue – The English Language by Bill Bryson

  1. Borys says:

    Though the Author is no doubt talented, he nevertheless is quite often wrong in his statements. For example, on the page 13 he quotes: ‘in Russia there are no native words for efficiency, challenge, engagement ring, have fun, or take care.’ Dear B.B., there are such words, and they are: эффективность, вызов, обручальное кольцо, забавляться, заботиться.
    Prior to writing such things, one should consult with the language-beares, especially when you pretend to be such a’prominent’ and ‘awarded’ author. A typical example of British haughty self-enfatuation, which brought your country to what she is now.

    • bookworm says:

      I think you are being harsh in saying the author is quite often wrong. Whenever he referred to the Greek language at least, he was correct, and I couldn’t find the part you mentioned about Russian so it’s quite possible that these mistakes were corrected in later editions, don’t forget that the book was written 20 years ago. Either way, in no part of the book is it implied that English is somehow better in any way than any other language, just that, undeniably, it is the most universal language at the moment. Also before you make derogative generalisations about a whole country you should know that Bill Bryson is not British, he is American.

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