Top critical review
10 people found this helpful
So many factual errors and urban myths, more harm than good
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.