Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson did not discuss everything I expected from the title, though pretty close. But then, I guess my expectations were a little off.

What I expected was a book about the development of the English language as well as varying dialects and accents. What I read was close, but in my opinion Bryson focused more heavily on some areas and scrimped on others. I would have liked more focus on ancient language (ignoring the neanderthal part), but since little was recorded perhaps he did the best with what he had.
Also, as far as accents -- I'm still puzzled how natives to the southern states of the USA came up with such a strong drawl whereas natives to the north have such nasally accents. Bryson only hints at the possibilities -- I'd love to learn more. My personal guess has something to do with the extreme heat in the south. Who would have the energy to talk fast in the days before air conditioning? But I digress...

Bryson begins The Mother Tongue with a focus on language in the world as a whole and then steps back to the beginning of language (from a secular point of view) before moving on through history and eventually reaching the present and future of English by the end of the book. Mixed in are chapters focusing on the history of names, swearing, and word play (i.e. cross word puzzles, rebuses, and other such puzzles).

My favorite chapter was Chapter 5 "Where Words come From" -- I loved learning things like "And there's a word for describing a sudden breaking off of thought: aposiopesis..." Did you know that for 200 years the word Asparagus was called "sparrow grass"? And another little fact is that researchers believe 1/10th of Shakespeare's 17,677 words (written in English)were original/created by him. Words like: barefaced, leapfrog, critical, majestic were not in the English language prior to his plays/sonnets. Hard to believe! But Bryson goes on to list additional words originated to and coined by famous people including Sir Thomas Moore, George Bernard Shaw, and even Charles Dickens -- some that caught on, some that did not.

Another little tidbit I learned has to do with the word "neck" -- it used to mean a parcel of land, but has died out as such except for the phrase "neck of the woods." Another word: "tell" meant "to count", but died out as such except for the term "bank teller". I could go on and on listing trivia I picked up from this book, but you would be better off reading it yourself.

I have seen a few reviews by readers that claim The Mother Tongue is a better book than the very popular Eat Shoots and Leaves, but since I have not read the latter I can not pass judgment. I can say overall The Mother Tongue, at 245 pages, is a fast and extremely fascinating read.

I have learned my understanding of language, even though it is better than the average American, is still on the limited side. And yes, a well-read person can have an even better vocabulary and understanding of the English language than an educated person, it just depends on how well-read you really are. (So keep on reading!) Also, I realized it's been far too long since I've picked up a dictionary (if I need to check a word I utilize online versions, but I don't read dictionaries for fun).

The copy of Bryson's book I borrowed from the library is a little dated (published first in 1990) with mentions of statistics now nearly twenty years old and current facts that are long now history. I'm not sure if reprints have updated this, but even if they haven't the book isn't a waste, it's just something that readers may notice.

In a nutshell: If you are interested in learning the basic history of the English language -- how we got from Medieval times and Shakespeare to where we are today, or if you are into trivia -- this book is a worthwhile read. Unless you are a fanatic for language I'd suggest borrowing a copy of this book rather than buying it. I don't think it's a necessary addition to your library like a dictionary is.

As a post script, chapters you may consider skipping or skimming would include: Chapter 2, "The Dawn of Language" (About neanderthal and primitive man's language. Pointless to those with a Creationist or Biblical worldview.) and Chapter 14,"Swearing" (Unless you either have a morbid curiosity to learn the history of both the vulgar and the not so vulgar [At one time "legs" was taboo, but "limbs" was ok.] or you plan to travel abroad and the knowledge of what is ok in in the US, but not in other places then might prove helpful.


Anonymous said...

I've only read Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" which is hilarious! This sounds interesting, though. I should give it a try.

SmallWorld at Home said...

Sounds interesting. One of my favorite classes in grad school was linguistics. I loved hearing regionalisms and the guesses as to why we speak like we do.
Visiting from Semicolon's Saturday Review--
SmallWorld Reads