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A fascinating book, which you will treasure!
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!