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The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way
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Showing 1-10 of 12 reviews(3 star)show all reviews
on April 4, 2004
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 well. However, after I returned to the book lately, with a great deal more linguistic knowledge than I possessed before, though I am not by any means an expert, I found myself astonished by what I was reading. This is a book in desperate need for an editor with a sharp eye for facts, because although some parts of the book are correct, far too much of it is just misinformation.
The easiest thing for anyone even slightly versed in a foreign language to catch is Bill Bryson's complete lack of knowledge on foreign pronounciation. He makes such claims as that German people cannot pronounce v's when infact v is a common sound in the German language, claims the Danish name for Copenhagen, Købnhavn is pronounced Kohbenhawen (when in fact its pronounced Köbenhahven, with a German o umlaut), among other things. He also appears to lack any serious knowledge of Archaic English pronounciation, claiming such things as that Chaucer pronounced a double o as in food. He also lacks understanding as to the arising of pairs like knife knives and grass graze, when any person who has studied Middle English in any detail can tell you they come originally from voicing sounds between vowels (knif, knives, gras, grazen). He also claims as that damp, a word with ancient Germanic roots, was coined in the 17th century. In short, he appears to possess next to no real knowledge on the subject of English language history, or foreign, for that matter.
Less trival for someone writing on language is his lack of understanding in the area of verb conjugation and form. He makes the claim that I am driving is in the present tense, when any language student can tell him that I am driving is an auxillary tense utilizing the present participle of drive. Similarly his claim that the form drive as present tense is found in to drive, would drive, will drive, is absurd. to drive is an infinitive, would drive a past subjunctive, and will drive a future. They all use auxillaries, something Mr. Bryson was apparently not informed about during his research for this book.
The author also shows an amazing lack of common sense at points, claiming that -gry in angry and hungry is a sufix, when anyone can see that it's a contracted form of hungery and angery, thus the sufix is not -gry but the extremely common -y.
The book does have its good points. (...)
In short, this book must be read with a grain of salt. Any serious language student will find himself in disagreement with it often on technical details, in which he will be himself in the right. However, these errors do not totally outway the book as a whole, and so it should be a welcome introduction to any library.
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on August 6, 2003
Sadly I must concur with many fellow-reviewers: the numerous important errors that plague an otherwise worthwhile and entertaining book mean you can never be sure when to trust the author's assertions. Bryson's undoubted communicative flair has clearly enthused many lay-readers about language, and that is a heartening sign. His vigorous debunking of bogus so-called language pundits (Safire, Simon, et al.) is also to be welcomed (see Steven Pinker's 'Language Instinct' for an equally enjoyable slaying of the 'language mavens').
All this makes the book's flaws all the more exasperating and disappointing. They range from the trivial to the quite breath-taking - I won't list them all here, as other reviewers have already highlighted many of them (eg. The French can't distinguish between 'mind' and 'brain'... hmm, I hope he's used some of the proceeds from this book to invest in a French dictionary - and an Italian one, and Finnish...)
What I will point out are the gaps in his grammatical understanding: I'm not talking about arcane, abstruse, pedantic points here, but the fundamentals of grammar, what it is, and how we use and describe it. Almost half an entire chapter (where he discusses the categorisation of words into various parts of speech, and verbs into tenses) can and should be junked. He seems to think the terms and concepts we use to categorise English grammar are absurd, constrictive and inappropriate, merely because they are greco-latin in origin. For example, he doesn't see the need for the dual categorisation of -ing words as both 'gerunds' and 'present participles'; but this redounds to his discredit, no-one else's. These terms merely describe a distinction that we all observe whether we're conscious of it or not. When we hear 'My favourite hobby is swimming' we automatically understand that this does not mean 'my favourite hobby is currently doing a length of the pool'. Likewise, we know that 'I am swimming' doesn't mean 'I am the very act of propelling oneself through a body of water'.
The terms we use to describe grammar are precisely that - descriptive, not prescriptive, and have stood the test of time because they are versatile, adaptable, enable clear, precise thought and explanation when analysing linguistic constructions, and facilitate comparative study of different language structures.
But Bryson's heart is in the right place, and if people who read this book are inspired to widen their language/linguistics-related reading, that can only be a good thing.
Allow me to recommend a couple of other books as essential further reading:
'The Language Instinct' Steven Pinker
'The Power of Babel' John McWhorter
Engaging, not to say captivating, works - ideal for the layperson but packed with real linguistic meat and serious scholarly endeavour nonetheless.
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I'm having a conflicting situation here. I am fluttering through this book happily, with nary a dull moment. At the same time, my barely-beyond-layman's education in linguistics (three or four college courses) is consistently being offended. As several reviewers pointed out, this book is riddled with erroneous information, obvious enough to gall even the non-expert.
His assertion, for example, that English uses fewer articles (definite and indefinite) than essentially every other language, especially gendered languages, ignores obvious contradictions, like Russian (which has feminine, masculine and neuter nouns and no articles at all for the most part). The argument that English's one-size-fits-all approach to the second-person pronoun ("you", vs. French "tu" and "vous") is something that makes the language somehow superior also grates--I, for one, find it irritating that we have no plural form, and people in the American South have, adaptively, coined "y'all" to fill the gap. As a final example here (but far, far from the last of the bungles I read) is the implication that the English plural form is somehow an orthographical issue, and that it can be explained as simply "-s" or "-es" after "-sh" words. The true origin of plurals actually involves morphosyntax. I won't waste time explaining that here (it's fairly dry, anyway).
All that aside, however, I'm still having fun. I learned some new words (velleity, glabrous, ugsome); I committed to memory a few new anecdotes. So, have fun with this book, but don't take it too seriously. If you're like me, you may be inspired to go seek out more academic books on the subject.
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on February 19, 2002
The critiques of "The Mother Tongue" on Amazon.com illustrate the Internet's great value. Left-wing carping that the Net has been coopted for commercial purposes is wrong. It misses the point that the Internet is the greatest research tool ever devised, and not just for commercial ends.
On page 46, the author of "The Mother Tongue" writes that Frisian, a close linguistic relative of English and Dutch, "has been so little altered by time that many [Frisians] can, according to [a] linguistic historian . . . , still read the medieval epic _Beowulf_ 'almost at sight.' "
Knowing that old English, in which _Beowulf_ was written, is essentially foreign to modern English, I was skeptical that it could be that accessible to modern Frisian speakers. So I checked the Internet. Here, according to Catherine N. Ball of the Georgetown University linguistics department, is the Lord's Prayer in three versions: old English, apparently modern Frisian, and the 1611 King James version. (It seems that in old English the characters ð and þ were pronounced similarly to modern "th," both as in "thin" and in "that," and the digraph æ was pronounced like "a" as in "hat." I hope your computer shows these characters.)
[Old English]
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice.
[Frisian]
Us Heit yn 'e himel,
lit jo namme hillige wurde,
lit jo keninkryk komme,
Lit jo wil dien wurde
op ierde likegoed as yn 'e himel.
Jou ús hjoed ús deistich brea
en ferjou ús ús skulden
sa't wy ús skuldners ek ferjûn hawwe;
en lit ús net yn fersiking komme,
mar ferlos ús fan 'e kweade;
[want jowes is it keninkryk
en de krêft
en de hearlikheid
oant yn ivichheid. Amen.]
[The King James Bible, 1611]
Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our daily bread.
And forgiue vs our debts, as we forgiue our debters.
And lead vs not into temptation, but deliuer vs from euill: For thine is the kingdome, and the power, and the glory, for euer, Amen.
You can see they're all quite different, and only the third is readable to a modern English speaker. I doubt today's Frisian speakers would be able to read the old English text. Of course to wonder about such a minor point may seem pedantic if not obsessive, but if you write a book on the history of English you're going to attract the attention of language nuts like me.
To return to my initial point: Before the Internet's advent I would have been left with my doubts. The Web provides a means both to resolve them and to comment on, as well as to see others' criticisms of, "The Mother Tongue." Frankly, after reading the 55 comments posted before mine, I stopped reading the book because I felt I could no longer trust it sufficiently, entertaining though it is. I must say that part of me regrets putting it aside, and I don't want to urge others not to read it, for it is delightfully engaging, no matter what flaws it may contain.
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on October 4, 2000
Bryson is terrific at describing the English language and its history. One would never guess that subjects as seemingly dry as linguistics and (eech) grammar could be given such a page-turning treatment. In this sense, Mother Tongue is a terrific piece of writing.
Where Bryson tends to fall flat on his face is when he compares English to other languages: he tends to make sweeping statements about languages he obviously does not speak, and invariably comes to the conclusion that English is the greatest language ever.
These sweeping statements tend to go a bit like this: Bryson wants to say something in Spanish/Urdu/Whatever. He doesn't know the word or can't find it in the outdated dictionaries he obviously uses. Ergo, English is the best language on the planet because he can say things in English that he can't say in other languages.
This is a bit of a worry: if his research is so shaky in one topic (comparative linguistics), how can one vouch for the REST of the book?
Well, never mind... if you can read Mother Tongue without worrying too much about its accuracy, and gloss over its obvious jingoism, it's a pretty good book.
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on March 20, 2000
It is a very easy to read book, a layman book. It would be very inspiring for a young kid wondering about language, and needing interesting "facts" to put schoolwork. However, a more serious reader cannot avoid noticing little mistakes everywhere... and after reading the other reviews I know that there are even more mistakes than I tought. Mr. Bryson must have a very limited knowledge of foreign languages - be it Finnish, French, Italian... but he mention them as known! Exemples: who says that RSVP is not used in France? HA! it is in every formal invitation. Same for "nom de plume", or "panache", while "bon vivant" are also perfectly current French (I don't know if there was a previous form as mentioned by Bryson, bon viveur...)(p.74) Or, "snob" coming from English? as far as I know, it is a contraption from the latin words "sine nobilitate", without nobility... or is it not? All the same, colonnade coming from Italian "colonnello"? I would rather bet from "colonna" (pillar...), isn't that simpler? or even from the late latin "columna, ae".... hmmmm.(p. 122) And who ever heard the Italian word "schiacchenze"? maybe it is dialect? (p.183) Unfortunately, finding a few inaccuracies (in+accurate, in- here expressing negation) makes one doubt (with a b) the rest.
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on December 25, 2000
This book consists of a series of essays about various aspects of English. On the whole, the book is well-balanced between describing British and North American varieties of English. The writing style is quite fluid and the book is, for the most part, very enjoyable to read. However, Bryson was not always careful about the quality of his scholarship; he often gets his facts confused or repeats "factoids" that are known to be false. On page 14, for instance, he makes reference to the old Eskimo snow vocabulary myth, claiming that Eskimos have 50 words for snow (see The Great Eskimo Snow Hoax for a more accurate account). On p. 107 he manages to associate the Martha's Vineyard pronunciation research with Trudgill instead of Labov. Since he makes so many errors, a reader can't tell for certain whether the remaining material is trustworthy. Readers of this book may find themselves more misinformed than informed.
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on October 30, 1998
Tell your humor editor there's nothing funny about Welsh (lucky she's 3,000 miles away). This is a great overview of the English language and how it has developed over the centuries and in so many countries both as a first and a second language. Two minor quibbles: the author doesn't make clear that Welsh is a phonetic language, i.e. it's pronounced as spelt; he got a little baffled by English pubnames, e.g. "The First and Last" isn't a baffling name - it describes a pub on the outskirts of a town, so it's the first one you see when arriving and the last you see when leaving; and similarly "The Tumbledown Dick" is a reference to the overthrow of Richard Cromwell (what did you think it meant?) I recommend this book to everyone.
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on October 10, 2000
'The Mother Tongue' is an entertaining book with many interesting anecdotes only vaguely related to language. But then again, Mr. Bryson never pretended that his book was supposed to be anything else. Where the book falters, however, is on the point of factual accuracy. There are many, many errors in this book - some of them minor (spelling mistakes), while others are major (claiming other languages have no thesauri). Most of these things were probably wrong in the primary literature he read, but there is really no need to perpetuate these mistakes. This book should be read with a pinch of salt.
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on September 21, 1999
As many other reviews have noted, while this book is very interesting, it does have some questionable information. Having lived in the South mu whole life, I have never heard anyone refer to a "grocery bag" as a tote. A tote bag is a sack that one brings in to be filled and then take home, but his suggestion that New England calls it a "sack" doesn't seem right. Other than other questionable "setreotypes", I really enjoyed the books.
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