The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780380715435
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/23/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 70,002
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include One Summer, A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue. He lives in England with his wife.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

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Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 53 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.
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.
loralu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book breaks down language into history, word-trading between languages, parts of speech, silly moments, and intricacies of certain languages. The previous sentence would have you believe it's rather boring, but it's truly far from it. Some of the ways we come up with words, and the ways we make certain parts of speech harder on ourselves, is downright laughable. A good and worthwhile read, especially if you want to have a chuckle or two and learn something in the process.
dickmanikowski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is filled with information and an incredible number of fascinating factoids. I never knew that a lifespan of 70 years equates to just about two billion seconds. Or that the highest recorded score for a game of Scrabble was 3,881 (with 1,539 of those points coming from the word PSYCHOANALYZING).This book was clearly a labor of love for the author. It's also a joy to read.
Periodista on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Certainly not a top priority for librarians of a public or university level. Sure, Bryson can be very entertaining when telling tales of how words in use by Americans may be older than the current British ones, how meanings have evolved over time and so on. But I have questions about the accuracy of any it given the numerous errors, particularly the huge ones re his statements about Japanese and Chinese. It's not that complicated! Ask a native speaker. Ask a person that has studied Chinese or Japanese for a month! And this book was written, if not published, at the height of Japan-is-taking-over-the-world hysteria. Doesn't he have any idea how to do research? Every time he said "English is unique in ..." I yearned for a footnote. This book needs a lot more footnotes.Apologies, I'm going on a bender here ...I don't think Bryson even comprehended that kanji, the characters used in written Japanese in conjunction with phonetic "letters", are Chinese in origin and often (usually?) identical in both languages. Basic characters like "pig" and "field" and "man" and "gate" are the same in Japanese and the traditional, unsimplified characters used in Taiwan, Singapore and (at least for now) Hong Kong.Anyway, he says Japanese has 7,000 characters?! Perhaps prior to 1950 a literary scholar would know that many. But since the post-WW2 reforms, as any Japanese person or student of Japanese will tell you, everyone is suppose to learn 1,800- something character by the time of high school graduation. It isn't like the language suffers from a lack of vocabulary as a result because the characters are combined and inflected with the two "alphabets," primarily hiragana. Katakana is used for foreign imports, emphasis and so on. *This isn't that hard to understand.* The two alphabets (all but one letter representing a syllable) represent the same sounds. Think of katakana as italics or the use of quotation marks. .A child learning the written language writes totally in hiragana, adding characters and katakana as she learns them. A Japanese learning a Western language perceives four systems: upper and lower-case in print and written forms of letters.Then, after high school or college, if you forget some characters--and most Japanese will--popular low-brow reading matter, such as comic books, don't employ 1,800-whatever characters. As with children's books, they use a much more limited number of kanji and even supply little hiragana characters underneath many of the characters that are used. If you're studying Japanese, it's amazing how soon you can start reading manga. Manga, comic books, are responsible for 1/3 of book sales in Japan. You can't assume these are intended for kids because so much of manga is pornographic or super-violent.Sorry to blather on .. but how about when he says computers at the time have to be bigger or something because Japanese has so many letters?! It doesn't take much for us to type 2,000 or 7,000 characters in an hour and we could do it on primitive computers without hard disks.Let's just say he also has many idiotic statements about Chinese. He himself knows that identical English words have evolved to have different meanings or connotations in, say, US and Britain or Britain and India. (He says 4,000 and the US and Britain, though I dispute many he lists on p. 171. All Americans call a see-saw a teeter-totter? What's a downspout?) And yet we native Anglophones can usually talk to each other easily. I've noticed that Swedish and Norwegians can understand each other while speaking their native tongue too. That is not true for mono-lingual speakers of, say, Hainanese and Mandarin or Shanghainese and Teochew or Cantonese and Mandarin.Then you have the distinct dialects of, say, Cantonese; these dialect speakers sometimes stumble as much as someone from the Appalachian hill country might have with a backwoods Aussie.He also notes that many English words have stayed the same in form while meaning has changed over time.Ye
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson is one of the most accessible non-fiction writers out there; he is always entertaining, and usually researches his ideas and points to a high degree (though with the occasional glaring exception). Here he tackles the English language, how it has developed and continues to change. As an English language teacher, I found the book to be full of useful tidbits of information, and some passages I adapted to use in my lessons, such as the idea of some words showing through their pronunciation the very meaning they express - for example, like how wet the word 'spit' is.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson provides an entertaining book of history and anecdotes in telling the story (in a round-about way) of how the English language came to be what it is today. There are some interesting tidbits regarding philology (the history of words) and linguistics (how speaking patterns cause languages to evolve). There is the usual (for this topic) parade of English language conundrums, such as how "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing. It really is a wonder that non-native speakers can pick it up as well as they can. Speaking of, he also covers the large amount of foreign words incorporated from other languages. I found it interesting that some of the French and Italian phrases we commonly use either are no long in use in their original language or mean something completely different. I guess my language skills aren't quite as cosmopolitan as I thought they were.The history of the language was particularly interesting, coming as it did from ancient Germanic Jutes and Saxons as they colonized England during the vacuum created during the withdrawal of the Roman Empire. We might be all be speaking French these days if snooty French aristocrats hadn't insulted the English for their crude accents. The spread of the language worldwide as the most important commercial language is fascinating -- among the things I didn't know that only a handful of the world's 170 or so major airlines use English as their primary language.Bryson also commits a good portion to the study of dialects; efforts to enumerate them, what defines them, and what impact they have overall on the evolution of language. Here he doesn't focus on English alone, but includes the neighboring Gaelic languages spoken in Scotland and Ireland as a demonstration on how divergent dialects can become. He also shows a word can evolve a completely off-the-wall meaning through a series of mutations -- using cockney English as an example, he takes several phrases or words that start with a known meaning, then changing them to something synonymous, then having the synonym slurred or truncated, then the result being a homonym that leads to another synonymous word and by then you have a word that gains the meaning of a completely unrelated word or phrase. Bryson ends the book with a study of the origins of various types of word play, from anagrams to rebuses to crosswords. Many of the anecdotes in this book I've heard before, but it doesn't lessen the entertainment value. It's an easy read, nothing dense along the lines of Steven Pinker. The next time you hear someone utter the phrase, "the exception proves the rule," ask them to explain what that means. Buy them a drink if they know that an archaic definition of "proves" is "tests," and using the latter rule, you discover that the "rule" is being invalidated, often not what is meant when that phrase is uttered.
VirginiaGill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a fabulous read aloud book to share with my husband. I will never stop laughing at the memory of trying to get through the chapter on swearing while sitting in the cancer center of a Catholic hospital! I'm looking forward to reading more of Bryson's work.Even if you never thought languages interesting this one is worth the read. You will laugh out loud.
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fun romp through the history of the English language, from the invasion of the Saxons and the Normans in England to the "infection" of English by Americanisms. Intriguing, engaging history and, as might be expected from Bill Bryson, humorous. The tone is conversational, and accessible -- you don't have to be a linguist or Old English scholar to read this book. If you enjoy language, words, history, or Bill Bryson's writing style, I highly recommend this book.
Sean191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bryson shows a different side of his talent to some extent with this offering. A brilliant and humorous travel writer, in Mother Tongue Bryson shows his love of language in an even more apparent way than usual. Mother Tongue is filled with really interesting information. Sometimes it does stray into a little too dry an area, but overall a worthwhile read for Anglophiles - I'm not even sure if I have that right... *sigh*
mms on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A romp through the history of European English.
Cymrodor on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a Welsh speaker I noticed mispellings, mistranslations, misunderstandings and generally inaccurate and false statements. This really makes me wonder how accurate he is in talking of other languages.I don't see the point of labouring the fact that Welsh looks unpronouncable to those who attempt to read it without knowing the alphabet or the language. From an English-speaking perspective, 'Llwchmynydd' is a name of eleven consonants. But to a Welsh speaker, it's five consonants, three vowels, and its spelling is phonetically correct - more than can be said of many English words, which the book later highlights.On page 25, the Welsh word gwdihw (goody-hoo) isn't the best example of an onomastic name for an owl as it's a word used by very young children and their parents in the same way my sister refers to a sheep as a meh-meh when with her 2-year-old son. The more proper Welsh word for an owl is tylluan.On page 84, 'Pwy ydych chi?' does not ask HOW someone is but enquires WHO someone is. Also, the fact that it's Welsh means it isn't Gaelic, just as English isn't French.I also noticed an error in his description of English phonetics on page 87. Surely the "th" in those is soft, while the "th" in thought is hard?
Mrs.Stansbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Believe it or not, this book was fun to read. Bryson is a very good writer and he presents factual information in a light hearted way. I read this while taking a course on the history of the English language and found this book to be a highlight. Bryson helps put our wacky language into perspective- be prepared to laugh. I can't wait to read another book by him; he is a fantastic writer.
jjmachshev on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a hilarious, fascinating, and educational look at our wacky, wonderful, and WAY complicated language. If English is your mother tongue, this book will amaze and amuse you with interesting tidbits about just how our language evolved into the wonder it is. If you had to learn English as a second language (and more power to you), then bless your heart for taking on the task. You will read this book, and say YES, absolutely, I always wondered..., etc. Bill Bryson turns his sharp-eyes to "The Mother Tongue" and takes us all on a fabulous journey through and overview of the intricacies of human language. You will laugh, smile, and learn a few things while you're at it!!!
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Definitely typical Bryson -- an excellent primer on what can be a dull subject (linguistics). He hits all the highlights and introduces a lot of humor to make his points. Not a comprehensive look at the subject but one with a lot of insight and definitely worth taking the time to read.
jddunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An enjoyable little nugget of nonfiction comfort food. Humorous and shows a genuine love of the subject. More like what I expect out of Bryson than the mean-spirited and condescending jerkishness of The Lost Continent. Taught me a lot of interesting trivia and history about how the English language developed and why it has the quirks it does. Also some interesting comparative language stuff that I had long guessed at but was never sure of. Still, this is nothing like a systematic study, nor is it really trying to be. It's just good light-reading fluffy topical nonfiction, and if that's what you're in the mood for, it definitely fits the bill.
StephenBarkley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Have you ever wondered why Bill Bryson is such an interesting author? Maybe it¿s because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the English language. In The Mother Tongue, Bryson takes the reader on a tour through the formation and the use of the most common language in the world.Every page¿I¿m not exaggerating here¿had something on it that made me either laugh or think. If you¿re a fan of trivia, this book is especially geared toward you. Here¿s my favourite tidbit: the ¿k¿ in knight was not originally silent. Do you realize what that means? The French Knight in England in Python¿s Quest for the Holy Grail is actually historically accurate in calling down those English kuh-ni¿-gets. Awesome.Any English speaking person should enjoy this substantial treatment of our mother tongue.
Oreillynsf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Who knew the history of language could be this entertaining and laugh out loud funny? From sweeping tales of the general evolution of English to minutely detailed explanations of individual words and expressions, this book gave me a unique perspective on our language.
AlaricBond on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A revealing insight into the birth of our language told by one who uses it so well.
drsnowdon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting and in-depth look at our language, it's roots, and where it's going. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on swearing (does that make me immature?).
audreya2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Mother Tongue is a fascinating, highly entertaining read. Bill Bryson is probably best known for his hilarious travel writing, but he brings his signiture humor and wit to this history of the English language. Filled with countless tidbits and anecdotes, at the same time the book provides a wonderful overview of the origin of language in general and English in particular. It is a great introduction for the novice and will inevitably expand your vocabulary. And besides - who doesn't want to read a whole chapter on the history of cursing? (Yes, I can start a sentence with "and." Bill Bryson says so.)
carlym on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is essentially a collection of interesting facts and observations about the English language. Bryson starts with a brief history of English but then goes on to discuss sources of new words, changes in pronunciation and why spelling and pronunciation don't always match up, dictionaries and efforts to standardize English, interesting names, and wordplay. On the whole, I liked the book. Bryson clearly enjoys language and words, and he shares tidbits (formerly "titbits" but sanitized by Americans) that he finds interesting. Sometimes he gets bogged down with too many examples, and this interrupts the flow of the book. I did have some concerns about accuracy. For example, Bryson refers to our collection of "redundant phrases, expressions that say the same thing twice," and goes on to list, among others, "pots and pans" and "assault and battery," neither of which is redundant. Later, he describes the sentence, "I think I've just broken my toe" as using "broken" in the present tense sense. If a person has just done something, that act is in the past, even if it happened only a second ago. I don't know enough about linguistics to judge the accuracy of his more important points, but these errors made me hesitant to believe other parts of the book.
Nodosaurus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson is a wealth of information on the English language. In this book, he describes the origin of our language and traces its evolution through interactions with different cultures. It can be fascinating how he describes the relationship between neighboring villages and their particular dialects, or how French and Anglic terms evolved for the same words. However, I didn't feel there was really enough information for a full book. When Bill Bryson gets into details of particular words, rather than give a few examples of their changes, he will continue for 20 or 30. At times it felt as if his editor were pushing him to expand a magazine article into a full book. By the end of the book, I felt as if I had read everything. New information came slowly and the majority of the text was lists of words and interesting facts. I think it would have been more suited to an etymological dictionary. Mix in a number of errors and I cannot recommend this book.
ntempest on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This should be mandatory reading in schools. Bryson makes the English language funny and accessible, and makes those of us who struggle with stupid spellings and such feel not quite as bad about our own ignorance. Plus the history of how we came to use certain words is fascinating, and so random. He must get such a kick out of researching this stuff. I recommend this to anyone curious about English as a language, and particularly to writers.