Apr 20, 2010

Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue"

Ever wondered why the shortened form of Edward, Anne and Ellen are Ned, Nan and Nell? Would you find interesting to know that familiar words like "ship", "bath", "bridge", and "that" come from the Old English words scip, bæð, bricg, and þæt and have changed very little in a period of thousands of years? Maybe you did not know about this but are now wondering where do the letters 'ð', 'þ' and 'æ' come from.
If so, or just if you are interested in the English language and would like to have fun while learning about a number of facts about it, you might like this book: Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (1990).

Although Bryson was born in the United States he has spent most of his professional life in the United Kingdom, where he currently lives. He has published some humorous books on travel as well as some dealing with the English language and also scientific subjects.

I got this book as a gift and I've been reading it for a while now. Bryson has got a very personal but also a very professional writing style. From the moment you take your first look at the text it seems clear that he really loves the English language and its history. He proves to be an enthusiastic scholar who is really fond of this subject. 

Personally, I would take the liberty to criticize his persistence when giving examples of the points that he makes. Sometimes this creates somewhat thick paragraphs that might be too illustrative and perhaps distract the reader from the issue at hand at that moment. However, that is the only drawback that I can think of now. As a whole - at least at the moment of writing, not having finished the book yet - Bryson offers a really interesting reading. It is quite fun to read and is full of historical facts that will make the day of everyone who is curious as to why the British and the American English have come to be what they are today. And of course, he not only talks about the language but also about the peoples that have talked it during the ages. 

To point out some curiosities that Bryson talks about in the book, we could mention things such as the following: What would you think is the most common vowel in English? Which one of those that the author provides would you say it is?: the 'o' of hot, the 'a' of cat, the 'e' of red, the 'i' of in, the 'u' of up? In fact, as everyone who has began to study English in some depth knows for a fact, it is none of these. It won't even be a standard vowel sound. In Bryson's own words:

It is  the colourless murmur of the schwa, represented by the symbol [ə] and appearing as one or more of the vowel sounds in words without number. It is the sound of i in animal, of e in enough, of the middle o in orthodox, of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth vowels in inspirational, and of at least one of the vowels in almost every multisyllabic word in the language. It is everywhere.
However, the reader will not only be given grammatical or historical data. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is how it refers to the current English culture and society, like for instance, in this priceless paragraph:
Equally arresting are British pub names [...] Almost any name will do if it is at least faintly absurd, unconnected with the name of the owner, and entirely lacking in any suggestion of drinking, conversing, and enjoying oneself. At a minimum the name should puzzle foreigners -- this is a basic requirement of most British institutions -- and ideally it should excite long and inconclusive debate, defy all logical explanation, and evoke images that border on the surreal. Among the pubs that meet, and indeed exceed, these exacting standards are the Frog and Nightgown, the Bull and Spectacles, the Flying Monk, and the Crab and the Gumboil.

As you can see, different kinds of readers would be able to find something interesting in Bryson's book. If you have caught yourself feeling some kind of curiosity or wonder about what you might learn in it, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. 

For more on Bill Bryson you may take a look here:



Mark Hammond said...

Nice thanks! It looks quite good. I liked the paragraph about the pub names especially, it felt familiar somehow :p

witchy said...

Pablo, I've enjoyed your post a lot!
I've heard of this author, although I haven't read any of his books.
Maybe I'll start reading it after knowing your opinion.
I hope you recommend any other book to improve our English!!

Pablo López said...

I´m glad you liked it Witchy :-). You know I´ve got this book, so if you are interested in reading it (maybe after you finish the saga you are reading right now) I´ll be glad to lend it to you ;-)

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