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The Mother Tongue

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The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way Bill Bryson Published by Perennial Pages: 270; Price: Rs.446

With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson – the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent – brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language.

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way
Bill Bryson
Published by Perennial
Pages: 270; Price: Rs.446


Bill Bryson is the bestselling author of At Home, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, winner of the Aventis Prize. He was appointed Chancellor of Durham University. He is an American journalist who has lived for long periods in England, which accounts for his ability to write a book about English that takes account of both versions and the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them, which is what he has done in this book.

“The Mother Tongue” is divided into 16 distinct chapters. Each chapter can be read on its own and does not depend on the previous chapter. Starting with “A Short History of Language” touching on how languages developed, and ending with “The Future of English” the book encompasses several subjects. Pronunciations, varieties, and spelling are some items tackled as well as the good and the bad of the English language.

Bryson begins with the dawn of language and wends his way through the history of English presenting information in a refreshing manner. On reading, one will laugh, smile, and frequently read aloud because of the references to other dialects, languages, and accents.

The author takes us on a walk through the history of present day English. From the earliest origins of English in Indo-European roots, to the slang of today’s youth, Bryson presents and explores every aspect of the English language in a clever and humorous way. The book is replete with tid-bits of knowledge, folklore, and culture related to language.

Bryson begins with the dawn of language and wends his way through the history of English presenting information in a refreshing manner. On reading, one will laugh, smile, and frequently read aloud because of the references to other dialects, languages, and accents. Bryson’s opinions on comparisons between British English, American English and Australian are pure delight.

Bryson does an outstanding job of making the history of English an amusing and interesting topic. Because of his writing style and rhetoric, he makes the information enjoyable.

The book may not be the most scientific or professional but it offers a treasure chest of knowledge to a language trivia seeker. Bryson covers a variety of topics, including English as a world language, pronunciation, spelling variation, dialects, etymology, word games and swearing. Swearing provides the book’s most entertaining anecdotes and facts.

For any person who ever had to learn idiosyncrasies of the language, this book will provide a fascinating overview of the strange rules and nuances of English. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise most of us.

Did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare coined are the following: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pendant, and some 1,685 others? These are just a few of the hundreds of unlikely features of English past and present that Bryson has managed to unearth.

Spelling is a recurrent concern in English and Bryson has a good chapter on it, pointing out many  inconsistencies and illogicalities. In his chapter on ‘Good English and Bad’ he remarks that some of the rules you find in books about good writing are based on prejudice.

Bryson condemns the superstition about avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition. He keeps a sound sense of proportion about linguistic change. As he rightly says, the language loses some of its nuances if we fail to distinguish between infer and imply, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and so on.

The differences between British English and American English are endlessly fascinating, and can be embarrassing. The book is focused on history – the evolution and oddities of the English language.

   His humour often spills out into the footnotes, which he uses to express his own opinions or share anecdotes he finds amusing. One such footnote relates to the naming of chemical substances:

“One of which, incidentally, is said to be the longest word in the English language. It begins methianylgutaminyl and finishes 1,913 letters later as alynalalanylthreonilarginylserase. I don’t know what it is used for, though I daresay it would take some rubbing to get it out of the carpet.” [page 147]

   Bryson’s dazzling wit and astonishing insight makes this a remarkably fascinating book.

P.P. Ramachandran

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