Mother Tongue

This book takes Bill Bryson's writing away from the area of travel books, for which is deservedly famous, but it is as readable as any Bryson book. As a thoroughly researched educational book on the development of the English language, it is also thoroughly enjoyable.

On an inclement island, hundreds of miles from the centres of power, a loose confederation of third world, culturally backward nations created a language that was to take over the world. Nobody would have forecast such runaway success for that minor German dialect. It needs the wisdom of hindsight to explain the triumph of Anglo-Saxon. Mother Tongue is Bill Bryson's venture into brilliant hindsight supported by thorough research. His better-known travel books may have typecast him in many readers' minds; but this book proves his breadth, depth and scholarship. Not that he lapses into stuffiness. Despite the erudition of his subject, he retains the good-humoured easy-reading style that has made his books into best sellers and the result is a study book that works well as casual reading. His jibe at the Oxford English Dictionary illustrates his lightness of touch -
After explaining that 'Shakespere' is the correct spelling for the Bard of Avon's name, the OED "grudgingly acknowledges that the commonest spelling 'is perh. Shakespeare'. (To which we might add, it cert. is.)"

Although this book is easy to read it is bursting with facts, figures and sound opinions. We learn that the grammar they taught us at school was, as we suspected, useless! English grammatical classifications are based on Latin, although the language of Britain and America bears few similarities to the literary language of highborn Romans. English breaks almost every rule that the grammarians try to force upon it - including the one that says we should not form words from mixed language roots. The word 'grammarian' itself is based on Greek and Latin roots, as is the well-established 'petroleum'. The venerable word 'trusteeship' excels by incorporating Nordic, French and Old English originals. Our language resists all tempts to tame its versatility.

Bryson traces the history of English from its early days as a North German tribal language, through its absorption of Norman French to its development as a national tongue and its conquest of North America and the world. Its peculiar ability to acquire new words has contributed to its unrivalled vocabulary. The OED lists over 650,000 words, and estimates of individual vocabularies vary from around 5,000 to well over 200,000 per person. It is hard to define how many words any individual knows, because the words they use may be far fewer than the ones they would understand if they heard or read them. Shakespeare never used the word 'Bible' throughout his writings, but we may be quite certain that he knew the word. But words in English do not necessarily mean the same every time they are used and they can even mean their own opposite - like 'cleave' (to join together) and 'cleave' (to cut apart). English words can sound the same and be spelled differently - or vice versa. As Bryson remarks, "If there is one thing certain about English pronunciation it is that there is almost nothing certain about it."

This book delves into many aspects of our language, and that sentence includes on interesting example. Who now uses the word 'delve' (meaning to dig) other than in relation to ideas? And why does 'dig' sound wrong in such a context? We enjoy a wealth of synonyms that enables English to describe minute differences in meaning or concept without the need for long explanatory clauses. It has a richness that few languages can match and enables wordplay and humour that can be impossible to translate. It has become a world star and has given words to most other languages around the globe, even if their form becomes unrecognisable, like the Japanese 'shyanpu setto' (shampoo and set).

Mother Tongue ventures into many other languages to make its points about English and thereby demonstrates the thoroughness of the author's research. At 244 pages, this is a pocket book rather than a tome, but that does not make it trivial. Its chapters cover spelling, pronunciation, history, swear words, wordplay, names, grammar, and so on. That it is not a long book is testimony to Bryson's journalistic skill in selecting the interesting from the merely informative and in tightening his language to fit substantial information into limited space.

For an Englishman it is hard to admit that the powerhouse of English growth and development is now on the American side of the Atlantic. As an American, Bill Bryson does not view this as a problem, but nor is he tempted to gloat. He is a true anglophile, with a deep knowledge of England and the English, nurtured through almost 30 years of living and working in this country as an accomplished journalist. His statement that between Britain and the USA "some 4,000 words are used differently in one country from the other" is not mere theory - he knows and uses both vocabularies.

Such an established writer hardly needs my recommendation to boost his sales, but I particularly liked his approach to this more academic subject. For information and for enjoyment, give it a read.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000