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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
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.
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Very interesting book on the history of English. Suitable for any were nerd.Published 1 month ago by Ace Rimmer
Bought for a Christmas gift. I had previously read it. For anyone with UK connections, it's a great readPublished 1 month ago by Roadrunner
I'm a big fan of Bryon and am always amazed by how much research he has done. This is typical of his books.Published 3 months ago by andy jaunzems
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 5 months ago by Linda Walton-Pluim
I will never stop raving about Bill Brysons books... SO good. This is particularly excellent!Published 19 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