Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bill Bryson: The Mother Tongue

The Mother Tongue: English and How it got that Way is a delightful book. Anyone interested in language, etymology, or history will love this book. Anyone vaguely curious about why English can seems so strange or confusing will find it enlightening and amusing.
Bryson works his way through some of the basics of the history of the language: how a bastardized peasant tongue somehow became one of the dominant languages of the world. Some of the sketchier bits of history like "the great vowel shift" are skirted over with good reason: there is no definitive understanding of that strange happening to this day. Dialects, American and British are discussed, as well as how the names of places and people came to be, and also the origins of swear words.
What always rings clear in this book is the fact that language is not a permanent thing. English is strangely malleable, constantly shifting, picking up bits of other languages, and changing. Where some languages have change very little in the past thousand years (so much so, you could read ancient manuscripts with little difficulty), old English is nearly unrecognizable to modern readers. Though Bryson admits English has its failings and that other languages are more expressive or sensible in certain areas, his love of the language is seen on every page. He reminds native speakers that the language they speak is beautiful, expressive, and unique among world languages.
Perhaps he is a little biased in his love of English, and doesn't go into all the textbook definitions. It's not a textbook, and it never feels like one. Overall, it's a book that is both fun to read and will teach you dozens of new things about the English language. Something about Bryson's voice is engaging and personable. You feel like you're chatting with an incredibly smart friend while having a drink together on a lazy Friday night. I'm currently in a Linguistics class at the moment, and I must say, that though The Mother Tongue seems light on the science, it was a fantastic book to read before the class. Nearly all of the topics on our syllabus were touched on by Bryson. I feel much more prepared than going into the class cold.

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