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Who would have thought that a book about English would be so entertaining? Certainly not this grammar-allergic reviewer, but The Mother Tongue pulls it off admirably. Bill Bryson--a zealot--is the right man for the job. Who else could rhapsodize about "the colorless murmur of the schwa" with a straight face? It is his unflagging enthusiasm, seeping from between every sentence, that carries the book.
Bryson displays an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic, and this inevitably encourages a light tone; the more you know about a subject, the more absurd it becomes. No jokes are necessary, the facts do well enough by themselves, and Bryson supplies tens per page. As well as tossing off gems of fractured English (from a Japanese eraser: "This product will self-destruct in Mother Earth."), Bryson frequently takes time to compare the idiosyncratic tongue with other languages. Not only does this give a laugh (one word: Welsh), and always shed considerable light, it also makes the reader feel fortunate to speak English. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Publishers 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 .
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Bryson writes charming travelogues - THE LOST CONTINENT is a book I'd recommend to any foreigner wanting to learn about rural America - but he is an amateur with an interest in wordplay and not a professional linguist. Much of the book appears to have been thrown together from older books on language for the popular reader, especially those of Otto Jespersen, Mario Pei, and Montagu, which themselves have been criticised for errors and oversimplications.
The errors of the book astound from the start any reader with the slighest knowledge of language. Bryson speaks of the Eskimos having a multitude of words for snow, though this urban myth causes linguists to shudder and has been soundly debunked in THE GREAT ESKIMO VOCABULARY HOAX. Bryson goes on to say that Russian has no words for "efficiency", "engagement ring", or "have fun", a preposterous statement that can be proved wrong by any Russian speaker. His knowledge of British history is also shaky, as he asserts that the Saxon invaders eliminated entirely the former Celtic inhabitants, but in reality they merely imposed their language and Britons now remain essentially the same people genetically as 4,000 years ago.
Every reader who speaks another language besides English will find a most annoying mistake in THE MOTHER TONGUE. For me, a speaker of Esperanto, it was Bryson's ridiculous summary of the language. He begans by mispelling the name of the language's initiator.Read more ›
I never thought a book on English (and languages, in general) would get me to laugh out loud, but this one did many times. For example, Bryson writes that "some languages have words that we may be pleased to do without," such as the German word "schadenfreude" (which means "taking delight in the misfortune of others") or how about "sgiomlaireachd" (meaning "dropping in at mealtimes" in Scottish Gaelic)? The delight that Bryson takes in languages is, well, simply wonderful: He writes that strozzapreti is a pasta in Italy and means "strangled priests" and that vermicelli means "little worms." Or how about that "A ydycg wedi talu a dodi eich tocyn yn y golwg?" is Welsh for "Did you remember to pay?" Bryson is also quick to give opinions, such as: "There is no logical reason not to split an infinitive" and "Sentences [can] end with a preposition." Then he tell us the sources of these "dubious" strictures.
Bryson is intrigued about where English words come from, and they come from many other languages: Scandinavian (skull, leg, husband, rotten, their), Norman French (jury, traitor, marriage, govern), native American ("hoochinoo" became hooch!), Mexican-Spanish (rancher), German (dollar), etc. In fact, only about 1% of our words are Old English ones (but they include man, wife, and love) we discover.Read more ›
That said, there is much to be gained by reading this book. Bryson's wonder and delight in the English language is contagious. While some of the historical information may be familiar at first, especially if you, like him, have read McCrum's THE STORY OF ENGLISH, his sorting out of the origins of our language and historical forces is quite lucid and thorough refresher course. What I especially appreciated was his look at how American and English usage and pronunciation diverged. I did not realize that the plummy "ah" sound that Americans identify so strongly with the British accent, as in glahss and cahn't, only came about in the 18th century, a social fashion that survived. I've come away with a better understanding of the role of how geographic movement and isolation affects language, as well as the very human need to name everything in site.
A note to recently indoctrinated Bryson fans: this was written rather early in his book career, in his English mode. Keep in mind that he only got better and funnier, though there is a sharp intelligence, graceful voice and sly wit behind every sentence of this book.
Most recent customer reviews
Although I generally enjoy Bryson's writing, this is not one of his best. It stays true to the title, it is a history of the English language but fails as an entertaining... Read morePublished 2 days ago by Linda Walton-Pluim
I will never stop raving about Bill Brysons books... SO good. This is particularly excellent!Published 13 months ago by Madeline
I owned this book for many years before I read another Bryson book... It was a book I loved the first time I read it and every time thereafter. Read morePublished on April 9 2009 by C. J. Thompson
This book is a notch above Bryson's other books. And that is saying A LOT! It is compelling, very witty, and overall memorable. Read morePublished on May 3 2008 by Mark Nenadov
This book contains more than you expect. Bill Bryson covers language its self with a focus on English. Read morePublished on June 25 2007 by bernie
This book is a quick read -- entertaining and light -- but no one should trust the facts that are tossed around in it. Read morePublished on July 7 2004
Before writing about his attempt to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail in A WALK IN THE WOODS, and then describing his journey through the scientific universe in his more recent... Read morePublished on May 26 2004 by G. Merritt
The Mother Tongue was the first major book on language I ever read. I must say, I found it highly enjoyable and very interesting at the time, and I found it very informative as... Read morePublished on April 4 2004
I enjoyed this myself but I think the readership for this must mainly be people who are already interested in languages. Read morePublished on March 23 2004 by D. P. Birkett