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The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way Paperback – Oct 23 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reissue edition (Oct. 23 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380715430
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380715435
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 204 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #9,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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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.

From Publishers Weekly

Bryson's blend of linguistic anecdotes and Anglo-Saxon cultural history proves entertaining but superficial. "While his historical review is thorough. . . he mostly reiterates conventional views about English's structural superiority," said PW. "He retells old tales with fresh verve . . . but becomes sloppy when matters of rhetoric and grammar arise."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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