on May 29, 2003
Bill Bryson's book MOTHER TONGUE has an admirable goal, to present the evolution and current state of the English language in a simple and intriguing fashion. However, it is a book full of factual errors. On nearly every page this is an urban myth, folk etymology, or misunderstanding of linguistics.
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. Then he asserts that the language has no definite articles - it does - but then gives a sample of the language in which this definite article he just denied is used twiced (and mispelled once).
These are only a few examples, the book is filled with multitudes more.
While the birth and growth of the English language is a fascinating subject, it's a shame that it is spoiled in MOTHER TONGUE by an abundance of errors. If you are interested about how English got the way it is today, I'd recommend trying another book, one preferably written by someone with a degree in linguistics.
on April 24, 2002
This book is a history of the English language, with particularly interesting chapters on the beginnings of language, wordplay, pronunciation, swearing, spelling, varieties, and just about everything you would ever want to know about our mother tongue. The only question I still have that Bryson was not able to answer was why was the language of the Angles adopted in England, rather than the language of the dominant group, the Saxons? Bryson says that we just don't know why.
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. Where do our words come from? Well, about 1,700 were invented by Shakespeare alone, including the following words: critical, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, excellent, and lonely. Also quite interesting is how English words have changed in the last millennium: For example, to Chaucer a "girl" meant any young person, "brave" implied cowardice (which "bravado" still does), and that "knight" was pronounced something like "kuh-nee-guh-tuh.". And new words keep coming ("apolitical" is only 50 years old)! And, of course, we learn that English has influenced other languages greatly: in China, conversations occur on the "te le fung," a Ukrainian goes to the barber for a "herkot," and a Japanese commuter is crammed into a subway car during "rushawa" (rush hour)!
And where else would I have discovered such facts as these?: that there are 176 names for dust balls under the bed; that there are 17 different pronunciations for the word "house" in Northern England; that there are no Chinese crossword puzzles (because there is no alphabet); that Kennedy means "ugly head" in Gaelic; that the Japanese, Malayans, and American Indians do not have have any swear words in their native languages; that an anagram for "The Morse Code" is "Here come dots"; that a couple of centuries ago, many words could be spelled two or more ways, but today there are only three such words in North America (ax/axe, gray/grey, and inquire/enquire); that the Pilgrims were among the first generation in England who said "has" rather than "hath" and "runs" instead of "runneth"; and that "O.K." is "arguably America's single greatest gift to international discourse, able to serve as an adjective, verb, noun, interjection, and adverb," with obscure origins that may be someone's initials (Martin Van Buren's nickname, "Old Kinderhook"), a popular snack (Orrins-Kendall crackers), or words in Finnish ("oikea"), Haitian ("Aux Cayes," a source of rum), or Choctaw ("okeh"), or perhaps a contraction of "oll korrect" (which is how Andrew Jackson spelled this expression)!
This is a book to treasure!
on March 12, 2004
When Bill Bryson doesn't have anything else to do (yeah, right), he might want to consider issuing a revised edition of this entertaining but somewhat dated book. As he so ably points out, language is protean and much has changed in the last 15 years since he worked on this. In addition to new research and revelations that might correct or amend the text, there is the incomparable affect of the internet that has arisen since this book saw the light, not to mention the "business speak" that corporate culture has been slipping in of late.
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.
on October 28, 2001
It is unfortunate that Bill Bryson writes so entertainingly, because the book's content is disastrously bad. The book is replete with elementary errors of fact. Many of these can be detected with nothing more than a good dictionary: 'law' and 'order' are not synonyms, 'swarthy' is not from Latin 'sordere', and 'bumf' is not from a non-existent German 'bumfodden' but from the self-explanatory British 'bum-fodder' (toilet paper). Others are equally elementary: for instance, the High German sound shift took place in the south of Germany, not the north.
He fares no better when he deals with more technical matters. He loves to count inflectional forms of words in different languages, but most of his counts are wrong. His history of the alphabet from Old to Present-Day English is riddled with errors of fact. His treatment of the sounds of English is hopelessly confused because he fails completely to distinguish phones from phonemes; indeed, he seems to confuse at least one of these with the graphs used to represent them. His discussion of the Great Vowel Shift, a fundamental change that explains many of the apparent oddities of modern English spelling, is partly wrong and wholly confusing.
Hard as it is to excuse such cavalier treatment of the facts, it is even harder to excuse his logical inconsistencies and muddy thinking. On the one hand, 'To a baby no language is easier or more difficult than any other'; on the other, Old English was so complicated that '[i]t is a wonder that anyone ever learned to speak it'. At one point he lists 'Celtic' as a European language that disappeared over time, and in the very next sentence he avers that 'Celtic ... is not dead'. (He appears to have confused languages with language families.) In comparing modern English spelling to that of Old English he applies a double standard in order to make modern spelling seem more arbitrary than it really is. And one wonders what distinction between 'hair' and 'hairs' made in Shakespeare's 'Shee hath more haire than wit, and more faults than hairs' is 'effectively lost to us today'.
But the errors are not the book's worst feature. Bryson returns again and again to three themes: (1) English is in most respects superior to all other languages, partly because (2) complex inflectional systems are BAD, and (3) English spelling is almost completely chaotic. He has moments of moderation in which he qualifies these assertions, even at one point denying the first altogether, but they are far less memorable than the polemics supporting them, and it is noteworthy that many of his errors and misleading statements reinforce these same themes.
Bryson's linguistic chauvinism is appalling. The English range of sounds is 'pleasingly' diverse, but Anglo-French was 'harsh, clacking, guttural'. 'Italians cannot distinguish between a niece and a granddaughter'? Of course they can. And to say that the meaning of German 'Schadenfreude' 'perhaps tells us as much about Teutonic sensitivity as it does about their neologistic versatility' is simply insulting. One is not greatly surprised to find that the index has an entry for 'English, advantages of' but none for 'English, disadvantages of'. One can also discover that while foreign words and phrases are 'adopted' into English, English words and phrases are 'expropriated' into other tongues.
A reader searching for a readable elementary introduction to the history of the English language would be much better off with Charles Barber's _The English Language: A Historical Introduction_.
on July 7, 2004
This book is a quick read -- entertaining and light -- but no one should trust the facts that are tossed around in it. Bryson's knowledge of languages other than English is shaky at best, and he makes countless mistakes in his various attempts at translation. He also has a very superficial understanding of grammar (as evinced by Chapter 9). On p. 142, he claims that petroleum has both Latin and Greek roots, "(Latin petro + Greek oleum)," but it is the opposite: petra is Greek and oleum is Latin. Not a big deal of course, but this book is literally peppered with inaccuracies such as this one. I wish someone had fact-checked this book, because it could have been a valuable tool. As it is, the information is often imprecise, or just plain wrong.
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. I never paid attention to the name of the author, at first, and, for some inexplicable reason, had always had some vague the author was a woman. Many years after acquiring the book I was lent a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything (which I ended up reading in one night). Afterwards, I made a note of the author's name (intending to buy more of his/her works) and realized that the writer of this highly enjoyable book was the creator of the 'Mother Tongue'.
I realize this book has been roundly criticized for numerous factual errors and I would prefer to know that some areas had been better researched. However, that being said, if you want an erudite scholarly work you will generally end up with something that reads like an erudite, scholarly work... this book is a light-hearted romp and I don't think Mr Bryson has ever pretended it was otherwise. He makes me laugh with many of his turns of phrase... I can always go check facts against other works if the need arises.
This book contains more than you expect. Bill Bryson covers language its self with a focus on English. The book covers speech from a historical view, a physical view, an environmental view, a utilitarian view, and many other views. You will want to play the tape over again as it cruses through many concepts that leave you thinking and speculating how it could have all gone differently.
A highlight for me (aside from his dirty word list) was the recognition that we try to impose Old Latin syntaxes on Modern English and it can get reticules.
My only disappointment comes when he mentions things I have already read and gets it wrong or off the mark.
The advantage of the tape is that you actually hear the pronunciations. When it is a matter of spelling the reader will spell it out for you. Also the reader has the ability to change accents to fit the dialect samples.
The disadvantage is when you want to turn back to a particular page for cross-reference; there is no page to turn. So I would be smart to won both versions.
on May 26, 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 A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, Bill Bryson took an encyclopedic trip through the history of the English language, from man's first Neanderthal grunt 30,000 years ago, to the language as we now know it. As Shakespeare was inventing words like "critical," "leapfrog," "majestic," "obscene," "frugal," "radiance," "excellent," "gust," "hint," "hurry," "lonely," "summit," and "monumental," words which had never been used before, a British scholar was predicting that "the English tongue" was of "small account, stetching no further than this island of ours." Neither writer probably had any idea that the English language would someday evolve into the predominant language of the world (p. 66). In his book, Bryson retraces that fascinating evolution through fascinating chapters on pronunciation, spelling, usage, swearing, and wordplay, revealing along the way that "one of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to presssures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees" (p. 145).
This book is characteristic Bryson, and Bryson fans won't be disappointed. I especially enjoyed this book, but then again I'm biased. I must confess English has always been one of my favorite subjects. (My undergraduate degree was in English, and I studied linguistics and rhetoric in grad school, while simultaneously devouring all the Victorian novels.) Other readers may find reading Bryson's book about as much fun as diagraming sentences. Still other more academic readers may find it a bit of a scholarly disappointment. But, written with Bryson's distinctive wit and plenty of entertaining anecdotes, it will nevertheless appeal to a general audience of readers, rewarding them with a greater appreciation of the language in all of its idiosyncratic forms.
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.
on March 7, 2004
I got the inspiration for my book review title from the German word "bundesbahnangestelltenwitwe" (window of a federal railway employee) one of the many words discussed in this mini-tour-de-force all too short 270 page book. I hope it does not trigger a headache!
I first came across Bill Bryson's books quite by accident. I was in an airport bookstore in Australia and they had large piles of his book with a bright yellow and blue book covers that were quite literally selling like hot cakes. That was his book "Down Under" about Australia and it was actually very popular in that country. I bought the book and read it on the flight home and finished a day or two later. Since then I have been hooked on his books. He employs a combination of knowledge, good stories, excellent writing, and humor. I have tried to buy and read all of his books, but still have a few to read.
The present book is a quick and an all too short introduction to all aspects of the language presented in a humorous way in a series of short chapters - each being an introduction to the topic. One can actually pick up the book and read just one chapter at random since each chapter is a self contained short story on that particular aspect of the language including "Names", "Spelling", "Where Words Come From", etc. It is all very interesting, entertaining, and illuminating.
It gives an introduction to the origins, the evolution of words and language, pronunciation, spelling, and transoceanic evolution of the language - all written at the level of the average reader. He presents many coincidences in words and phrases from different parts of the world and ages that one cannot logically connect, but seem to have common language threads, and even specific words.
The book is a nice but too short introduction to the subject. It includes a nice collection of follow up books to consider in an attached Bibliography. There the reader can continue the subject at their leisure reading more academic or comprehensive books.
For the uninitiated, once you read this book you will not view speaking in the same way. He brings us many new insights. If this or similar books were available to school students, maybe students would have a greater love of languages.
I would have liked to see a longer book than 250 pages plus references and that is the main weakness. Also there might be some minor errors. So I feel it probably deserves 3 or 4 stars. But I am giving it 4 stars because he has written a very easy to read introduction to a complex and possibly otherwise dull subject and at the same time created a best seller. Anyone can read and enjoy this book. To create such a book is a difficult challenge that he has conquered with ease.
Even though I rate it 4 stars (and it is not Bryson's best) it is strongly recommended to buy. It is a "gateway" book that will lead the reader to new and interesting books.
Jack in Toronto