The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

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by Bill Bryson

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With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson—the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent—brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can't), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson

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With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson—the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent—brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can't), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world's largest growth industries.

Editorial Reviews

Burt Hochberg
Its story has been told before, but seldom as deftly or as memorably as the journalist Bill Bryson tells it in ''The Mother Tongue.'' He begins at the beginning - with the evolutional descent of the larynx into the throat, which is why you cannot swallow and breathe at the same time and also ''why you can speak and your dog cannot'' - and concludes with some informed speculations on where English is headed. Along the way, he leads us through an enthralling excursion through etymology, pronunciation, spelling, dialects, grammar, the origins of proper names, wordplay and other major and minor aspects of the language. What an engaging tour guide he is; Mr. Bryson is having so much fun himself that we can't help sharing his pleasure in turning up odd, interesting facts or in pointing out grammatical blunders committed by famous grammarians. Every page contains at least one passage that demands to be read aloud. ''The Mother Tongue'' is a mother lode of delectable trivia. -- New York Times
Burt Hochburg
Complex and maddeningly illogical though it is, English is spoken by more than 300 million people around the world...Its story has been told before, but seldom as deftly or as memorably...An enthralling excursion...A motherlode of delectable trivia. —The New York Times Book Review
Robert Taylor
Diverting and richly anecdotal...Bryson is an unalloyed fan who relishes the language's versatility, verb hoard and vast vocabulary. —Boston Globe
Fred S. Holley
Vastly informative and vastly entertaining...A scholarly and fascinating book. —Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Linguistics as pop science: Mario Pei's works, such as The Story of Language , have shown how this formula can fascinate, and Bryson's ( The Lost Continent ) blend of linguistic anecdote and Anglo-Saxon cultural history likewise keeps us turning pages. Depth of treatment is not, however, to be found here. Bryson, who wants to see comedy in the English language's quest for hegemony in the modern world, strives for entertaining ironies. While his historical review is thorough, replete with enlightening scholarly citations, he mostly reiterates conventional views about English's structural superiority, asserting that the language dominates the globe today by virtue of its lack of inflection and its ``democratic'' suppleness in accommodating new forms. He retells old tales with fresh verve, and his review of the spelling reform movement has particular merit, but Bryson becomes sloppy when matters of rhetoric and grammar arise, e.g., ``He Shakespeare even used adverbs as nouns, as with `that bastardly rogue,' '' and in presenting his opinions (Samuel Johnson's prose is deemed ``rambling''). BOMC main selection . (July)
School Library Journal
YA-- Bryson traces the English language from the Neanderthal man of 30,000 years ago to the present. Interestingly, he contrasts the language as it developed simultaneously in various locations. He also presents examples of the evolution of words and their spellings. The book is well researched and informative; the thorough index will aid novices in the exploration of the language.-- Diane Goheen, Topeka West High School, KS
A history of the English language written in a non-technical manner for a general audience. Bryson begins with language's Neanderthal origins and goes on the describe the key people and events that have shaped English into its modern form and character. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One


More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say that the results are sometimes mixed.

Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: "The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway." Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor." Or these instructions gracing a packet of convenience food from Italy: "Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in a only couch."

Clearly the writer of that message was not about to let a little ignorance of English stand in the way of a good meal. In fact, it would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.

To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking to be mangled. Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth, that a person who says " I could care less" means the same thing as someone who says " I couldn't care less," that a sign in a store saying ALL ITEMS NOTON SALE doesn't mean literally what it says (that every item is not on sale) but rather that only some of the items are on sale, that when a person says to you, "How do you do?" he will be taken aback if you reply, with impeccable logic, "How do I do what?"

The complexities of the English language are such that even native speakers cannot always communicate effectively, as almost every American learns on his first day in Britain. Indeed, Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, created a stir in linguistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced his belief that American English and English English are drifting apart so rapidly that within zoo years the two nations won't be able to understand each other at all.

That may be. But if the Briton and American of the twentysecond century 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. Already 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 refueling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Macs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages, the lingua franca of business, science, education, politics, and pop music. For the airlines of 157 nations (out of 168 in the world), it is the agreed international language of discourse. In India, there are more than 3,000 newspapers in English. The six member nations of the European Free Trade Association conduct all their business in English, even though not one of them is an English-speaking country. When companies from four European countries—France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland—formed a joint truck-making venture called Iveco in 1977, they chose English as their working language because, as one of the founders wryly observed, "It puts us all at an equal disadvantage." For the same reasons, when the Swiss company Brown Boveri and the Swedish company ASEA merged in 1988, they decided to make the official company language English, and when Volkswagen set up a factory in Shanghai it found that there were too few Germans who spoke Chinese and too few Chinese who spoke German, so now Volkswagen's German engineers and Chinese managers communicate in a language that is alien to both of them, English. Belgium has two languages, French and Flemish, yet on a recent visit to the country's main airport in Brussels, I counted more than fifty posters and billboards and not one of them was in French or Flemish. They were all in English.

For non-English speakers everywhere, English has become the common tongue. Even in France, the most determinedly nonEnglish-speaking nation in the world, the war against English encroachment has largely been lost. In early 1989, the Pasteur Institute announced that henceforth it would publish its famed international medical review only in English because too few people were reading it in French.

English is, in short, one of the world's great growth industries. "English is just as much big business as the export of manufactured goods," Professor Randolph Quirk of Oxford University has written. "There are problems with what you might call 'after-sales service'; and `delivery' can be awkward; but at any rate the production lines are trouble free." [The Observer, October 26, 1980] Indeed, such is the demand to learn the language that there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.

It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,00 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000) The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between " I wrote" and " I have written.."

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Mother Tongue 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bryson describes the evolution of the English language and influences of other Indo-European based languages in a hilarious context of changing society and historical grammar. It's a fabulous book for anyone who knows anything about linguistics, and his cunning humor will resonate even with casual readers. The reader will also learn a lot about our crazy language. One of the best reads i've had in a while. His other books are great, too. If you like David Sedaris, you'll love Bill Bryson.
rbryanm More than 1 year ago
a must-read for any lover of language. a must-read for any lover of english. a must-read for any lover of...(linguistics, anthropology, sociology, history, etc etc ad infinitum ad nauseum) simply...a must-read.
Whymsy More than 1 year ago
It’s not my fault and other wonderful things I learned from this book! This fascinating subject raises some very interesting concepts (like the fact my grammar and punctuation problems are not my fault, but the fault of inconsistencies in English, and I have to tell you I’m glad to hear it. Take that with a raspberry I blow in your general direction every teacher I ever had trying to make me conform to their ideas of correct grammar and punctuation.). The writing was well done and densely packed with information. I’m usually a fairly fast reader, but with the amount of information this book conveys I found myself moving at a much slower pace and I believe it may take a few readings to really grasp all of the ideas. Also be aware of the fatigue factor as your brain tries to absorb the information; this is not a book you can just breeze through. The Mother Tongue has been touted by many as witty-particularly those trying to sell it. While I did find it very intriguing and marginally amusing, Bryson’s anecdotes never crossed over to outright funny for me. It should be noted some controversy surrounds Bryson’s conclusions and examples. Several other reviewers claim The Mother Tongue is full of inaccuracies; I cannot either validate this opinion or dismiss it. I just don’t know enough about the subject to weigh in. I would, however, be very interested in seeing an updated version of this book to see what changes of opinion Bryson would make with more current information or the inaccuracies he saw fit to fix, if any. My advice would be to not take everything he says as the gospel truth (skepticism if used properly can be a friend). And as with any vaguely scholarly subject, if you are really interested, do your own research. Ask questions like, does his information match up with what you already know? Look at the validity of his source material, read more recent articles and books on the subject, and figure out whether you would come to the same conclusions as Bryson (remember critical thinking from your college days, yeah it can apply to real life) .
Corner_mouse More than 1 year ago
is a dusting off of a Bill Bryson seems determined to contend with Isaac Asimov in the variety of his published interests. His works are generally well researched, and written to both entertain and inform. The volume in hand is, however, basically a paperback dusting off and reissue of a hardcover work originally published in 1990, and shows its datedness in minor ways throughout. As he stresses repeatedly, English is a moving target for the scholar or casual user alike, and the passage of nearly two decades has brought changes that may mislead the unwary. Also, the author's efforts to mine popular entertainment from the subject at the expense of rigor of presentation frequently leaves the reader with the impression that he has waded through a long series of one-liners with no clear development or point. Nevertheless there is a great deal of solid information buried in the ongoing sideshow exhibition of the freaks of our language, and the anomalies are both fun and provoking of rueful grins. All in all it is a fun read, especially if taken in chapter sized chunks.
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Heidi_G More than 1 year ago
Interesting book but as other reviewers have noted, there are many points in which I question the research. That said, I did enjoy learning about the history of the English language and the many twists and turns language has taken over the centuries. The decline and disappearance of so many languages, including Manx, the language of my ancestors, is documented, reminding us of the fragility of the spoken and written word. Amusing and entertaining.
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AEC More than 1 year ago
This book is really for the more serious minded affectionado of the English language. I am glad it was not my first exposure to his work. Having said that, I find "Mother Tongue" to be up to his high standards. It is well organized, comprehensive and comprehensible. I am not a professional in the field at all--yet, find myself drawn into his presentation. Mr. Bryson is amazing and most readable.
diegoCA More than 1 year ago
i had to read this book for college and i would recomend it as general reading.
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Concise, very detailed, seems to do his research well. Always written with a little humor, which is good. Good reading for students, as it may give them a sense of history for their language.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
To be brief, I found the book to be humorous, witty, full of information backed up with many interesting facts and a plethora of examples for each point. Bryson is accurate, and by reading The Mother Tongue, I learned a lot and enjoyed doing so.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an extremely well-written, humorous look at the different elements of the English language, and how they have evolved over history. Bryson makes his ideas clear and easily interpreted by the average reader. His humor and mocking rhetorical questions keep the mood light and care-free. The information presented in the text is filled with examples from history and the present use of the language. The one nagging problem is the overabundance of examples taking up paragraph after paragraph dunring the book. This grief is trivial, however, when compared to the amount of knowledge Bryson presents enjoyably to the reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a very entertaining history of the development of the English language. I studied English at university, and we also covered the development of English, Beowulf and all. Had I known this book then, I might have enjoyed it more! The development of language always also reflects the development of and changes in society, and I find this extremely interesting. In short, everyone who sees English (or any other language, actually) as a living, changing part of our lives simply has to read this book, to gain insights into the world of speech that are both entertaining and worth having read at least once.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Now on the page 29, found some inaccuracies, info doesn't match what I know. Writer was in rush, not well researched. Anyway will continue to read. Like this topic.