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Book Review: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
Pub. Date: November 2001
Series: Harper Perennial
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Read an Excerpt

For some time now, I have been a closet philologist. I have studied words, learned all I could about those who study words, and played more games of Scrabble with my grandmother-in-law than any one person can be expected to. I love words, word origins, and playing with words.

In looking for easy to read books on philology, books for the amateur, I came across Bill Bryson�s The Mother Tongue. Better known for his travel memoirs A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country, this early work of his traces the history of the English language in a humorous way. Where most philologists take themselves much too seriously, Bryson finds humor in the fact that in the English language word pronunciations don�t always follow spellings, that the English language loves to steal words from other languages, and that no one has ever been able to regulate its growth.

English is, according to Bryson, both the most versatile of languages, and the one most taught elsewhere in the world. English is rapidly becoming the universal language of business, law, and learning.

Through 250 or so pages, Bryson traces the in outs and outs of the etymologies of words, the spelling or them, word games, and in the best chapter of all, the fine art of swearing. Swearing in English is actually easier to do than in almost any other language oddly enough. Bryson ensures that you will see the humor in this situation.

An easy read, Bryson writes for the layman, the newcomer to philology. He wants the reader to see the beauty and usefulness of the language. Often this is done by humorous comparison to the foibles of other languages.

English grammar is shown to be a construction based on another language, rules of spelling are shown to be rather arbitrary, and some of the quirks of philologists of the centuries (such as Noah Webster, James Murray, and even J.R.R. Tolkien) are enjoyed in all their majesty. Bryson takes potshots at philologists by showing (in all seriousness) how often they make mistakes in their own writing.

The one failure of the book is to address the new creole of text messaging. Highly phonetic, this style of writing is slowly creeping into the language in the form of slang. Of course, his failure to deal with this growing English bastardization is due in large part to the fact that the original publication was in 1990, although the copy I read was a republication in 2001.

If you have an interest in philology, funny words, etymologies, or would like to know why we swear the way we do, this is an excellent introduction.