The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

ISBN: 0380715430
ISBN 13: 9780380715435
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

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. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can't), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world's largest growth industries.

Reader's Thoughts

Cat {Wild Night In}

"With dazzling wit and astonishing insight--"I'm going to have to stop you there, blurb. You've already exaggerated and made a couple of mistakes. Thus it was with The Mother Tongue. In fairness, this book was published in 1990 and researched in the 80s', which makes the chapter (Chapter 3- Global Language) on minority languages and the debate about their survival a little out of date due to the effects of several proposals that have been brought in and the funding given to various projects in the UK.Some of the mistakes made (that I picked up on) are eye-watering, ranging from what I hope were typos: 'saloire', as opposed to 'salaire' (which in the context was a bigger mistake as Bryson was pointing out the differences between Norman and French suffixes and how they evolved to create words we know and use today, such as 'salary') to full-blown contradictions to previous chapters, such as the use of the word 'dog' in place of that of 'hound'. According to Bryson, the former is "etymologically unrelated to any other known word" and has sprung out of nowhere, even though he had earlier said that, "The word for dog, for instance, is suspiciously similar in Amerind, Uralic and Proto-Indo-European".Whilst the casual, anecdote-driven style made for easy reading, the content did not.


Why was this book even published? There are so many errors, inaccuracies, misconceptions, misunderstandings and whatnot, I don't even know where to begin. (And I'm not even a linguist.)All of this makes me question all the other "facts" I don't know anything about, I simply don't know if I've learned more about them from reading this book.The Acknowledgements of the book mentions several people, but I hope for their sake that he didn't follow their advice. Otherwise they should receive a dishonorable mention and be out of work.I give it one star because Bill Bryson writes well. Review part I: Bringing science to the people, Bill Bryson style, is always funny and edcuational. However, this book is old, (it was written before the Wall came down, which is evident in the mentioning of the number of citizens of the Soviet Union who don't speak Russian) and a lot has happened in the lingustic field since then. So I'm not sure the information is always correct. Until I find out, I will simply enjoy the book as is :-)One curious thing: Norwegians supposedly "talk about departing like an Englishman" (p7) Eh, really? Never heard of that. Googling it, I find only quotes from this book.Update: Not sure I'll finish this book. I was worried it'd be outdated, but that's only part of the problem. There are so many inaccuracies, facts that are not facts at all and some Bryson attitude issues.I've mentioned the Norwegian example above and other Goodreads reviews mentions that, according to this book, mordern Finnish has no swear words (!) and Bryson's understanding of (to him) foreign languages like Japanese and German leads to wrong or not quite accurate conclusions. Also quotes like "As of 1989, the Basque separatist organization ETA ... had committed 672 murders in the name of linguistic and cultural independence" (p35) is rather particular, to say the least. His rant about funny Welsh spelling and pronounciation is silly. (p36) In some languages, like Spanish, spelling and pronounciation are almost the same, in other languages, like Danish and apparantly Welsh, they are not. Also, the pronounciation of a specific language is difficult or easy according to your own mother tongue. German to me is easy, Japanese is difficult. A book like this should acknowledge these things.

Tulpesh Patel

Mother Tongue charts the early history, eventual world dominance and preposterously quirky nature of the English language and has that classic Bryson combination being funny and informative in equal measure. His disarming humour makes it delightfully easy to read about such topics as technical grammar or advisory boards for the preservation of spelling, which in the hands of other authors would have you reaching for the nearest dictionary to club yourself over the head with. Literally every page is crammed full of little factoids that you’ll want to repeat back to friends, but my favourite section is (aside from the one on word games) the chapter on Where Words Come From, which is absolutely fascinating.It has, however, been two decades since Mother Tongue was published, and some of the book does feel dated (for example, references to Peking and the then US President, George Bush Senior – although his hilarious lyrical blunders do bear repeating). It would be interesting to get Bill Bryson’s take on contemporary English, especially given the unprecedented explosion of neologisms and memes afforded by the internet and text messages. (FTW, 'all your base are belong to us' and LOLcats, which has taken bad grammar to ridiculous and hilarious new heights and is one of the most popular things on the internet). My guess is that, despite some crying that modern technology has heralded doom for the English language, his reaction would be a positive one: one of the useful messages of the book is that English, in fact, all languages, are in a constant state of evolution, and attempts to preserve ‘the Queen’s English’, or any other standard, are futile and not necessarily for the good.


The one thing that bothered me the most about this book was a huge error it had on swearwords, in reference to my mother tongue Finnish: (p. 210, Ch. Swearing, in my Penguin paperback:) “Some cultures don’t swear at all. (…) The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a phone at 2.00 a.m., rather oddly adopted the word “ravintolassa.” It means ‘in the restaurant.’"I mean, what the hell?! We Finns have probably the world's most colourful collection of swearwords. Someone pulled old Bill's leg, and did it properly too. That casts doubt on all he has written, really. And nobody says "ravintolassa" unless they do in fact mean "in the restaurant."


Thanks to Oliver for putting this one up here. It's a great tour of the history of the English language, from its origins to its current diffusion as the de facto business language of the world. The story of English is told with Bryson's characteristic wit and mother tongue-in-cheek asides -- though the book is a bit outdated and contains some points now known to be apocryphal. I prefer nonfiction that changes the way you put things in context, that gives you a new lens to view everyday things. What [The Blind Watchmaker] did for biology and the living world, what Omnivore's Dilemma did for food, Mother Tongue has done for the way I read and listen to others -- and has given me a new appreciation when listening to ESOL speakers try to articulate what should be a simple thought. More than anything, however, it has affirmed my belief that language is as much a way to have fun obfuscating thought as it is a way to clearly and effectively communicate it, and I look forward to a future of conducting cognitive warfare on my soon-to-be-former friends


I don't agree with everything Bryson writes in this book, but that just goes to show how language evolves. I also spotted one or two spelling mistakes (admittedly, one was in a German word) which annoyed me.Generally it was very interesting to read this one, I've previously read Melvyn Bragg's The Story of English which was rather excellent (I got the impression that Bryson didn't like that book)The biggest problem with this novel is that it really concentrates and focusses on the similarities and differences between British and American English - which is obviously where his expertise lies. But I'd like to have seen a lot more discussion about Australian, New Zeland, Canadian and South African English to start with.The other thing is that at a distance of a little over 20 years since this book was read we have experienced the communication explosion that is the internet and a whole lot of us are communicating in English with people who speak a very different dialect, or speak English as a second or third language. That means we're exposed to a lot of different aspects of the language compared to people who will have read this book when it first came out.But it was an enjoyable read and I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in languages generally, and the English language and it's development specifically.


I am an English teacher. I like grammar. It fascinates me. I like knowing big words and little words and word histories and word games. Being at a computer with access to the online version of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) can provide me with endless hours of amusement. So, this book was a treat for me. Bill Bryson writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English (and language in general) is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it is not a comprehensive history of the English tongue, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. At the same time, he recognizes some of the strange idiosyncrasies of English that make it ridiculously difficult for non-native speakers to learn. Unlike other pieces on English I've read that are uncomfortably superior sounding, this one points out some of the places where other languages can easily express concepts that English speakers don't have precise words for. I also learned that a lot of the rules we hapless grammar teachers try to impart to our students have somewhat dubious origins. For instance, I learned that using a preposition at the end of a sentence, as I have just done a couple of sentences before, is only considered improper because a fellow who wrote an influential book on grammar in England decided HE thought it sounded common and ungraceful. I was also fascinated by all of the words that were once common in Britain that have fallen out of use there, are still in use here, and are now viewed as "Americanisms." In fact, the section on the "drift" between various English speaking countries was very neat. I knew a lot of the Brit-speak already (thank you, year in London and Age of Sail fandom...) but I really liked the argument that British English, Australian English, and American English aren't drifting apart as fast as they might because of the ease of communication and the media shared between the countries. It made a lot of sense to me.Anyway, I found this to be a useful, witty, fun collection of facts and oddities concerning English.


This is an engaging tour of the English language. Some passages made me laugh out loud, and I read it quickly, because so often I simply didn't want to put it down.It's not a perfect book. Written in 1990, it's out-of-date already. For example, I wondered how many of the regionalisms that Bryson describes have diminished in the last 20 years. The numbers he gives (of native English speakers, for instance, or people studying Russian) are almost certainly wrong. And of course, he was not able to talk about how the internet has influenced the language. It was interesting that the structure didn't bother me much. Most chapters don't have much shape to them. They're more like long strings of fascinating facts and examples. But the facts were so interesting that I was content to be led on the winding path from item to item, entertained the whole time.


Bryson's book on the English language is a compendium of linguistic trivia interspersed with the author's biased and misinformed musings on the history and features of the language. Published in 1990, the book was written before Internet changed the way the world communicates and hence a lot of the content regarding the spread of languages is hopelessly outdated by now.Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. Therefore his attempts to explain the popularity and status of English as the lingua franca of the modern world come off haphazard at best. Bryson's love for his native English is clear enough; so is his painfully obvious lack of knowledge of any other languages. I did not care to keep count of the times he falsely asserts some feature in English cannot be found in any other language or blatantly moves the goalposts to prove how infinitely richer English is compared to anything.For all the little anecdotes and copious bits of trivia it contains, I really want to like the book more than I do. Unfortunately once it becomes clear that many of these factoids won't stand up to closer scrutiny -- Bryson doesn't even blink as he repeats the age-old and very disputed claim that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow -- it becomes hard to believe anything the book claims.The most baffling and outrageous claim of all is the one that strikes closest to home. Bryson has the audacity to suggest we Finns have no native swear words and use the phrase "in the restaurant" as a curse instead. Perkele, I say.


Bryson has a love of language. In this book, he discusses why he feels that English is better and worse and different and the same and dynamic. It isn't a book about the superiority of the English language, but neither is it a denigration, it is a celebration and a history. At times this means that Bryson will get into the nitty gritty of the word, showing how it has evolved and bounced, been misused and reused, etc. until it came as we have it today, and other times he simply throws a list at you (lots of the time he does this) and sometimes he can barely contain his glee/skepticism/amusement. And while it is insightful and well researched, it is humorous, lighthearted and in good spirit. A worthy read for all.


I first ran into Bryson in one of his travel books (A Walk in the Woods), and have read several other of his travelogues since (I'm A Stranger Here Myself, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburnt Country, and Neither Here Nor There). But while Bryson's travel writing is entertaining, I've found that I like his writing about other things even better. A Brief History of Nearly Everything was remarkably good, and I'm very fond of both Bryson's books about the English language: The Mother Tongue and Made In America.The curious thing about my fondness for The Mother Tongue is that I like the travelogue flavor of the book. The book has plenty of facts and historical side notes, but what really makes it work -- at least for me -- is that Bryson will take a paragraph aside to tell you how difficult British crossword puzzles are, or comment on the improbability or British pub names, or to comment on the time when the "language police" in Quebec seized 15000 Dunkin' Donuts bags because they were labeled in English. It makes for an easy read, and a satisfyingly entertaining one.


I teach English as a foreign language but other than that linguistics and language learning is just a hobby, having said that, I know enough Irish, German, Czech, Russian and Spanish to know that the things he said about these languages are half truths or complete and utter codswallop. For example claiming that the German preposition/suffix "auf" is unusual among foreign words in that it has more than one meaning... anyone who has spent any time learning a language will tell you that all of them have words with dozens of meanings (Except maybe Esperanto?). Furthermore there is no preposition in any language that cannot be translated into at least three or four prepositions in English, nor are there any English prepositions that don't have numerous translations in the other language. That's just how prepositions are! They don't translate!The first chapter of this book has so many mistakes that I couldn't finish it. Almost every sentence has a mistake.It is a collage of newspaper clippings. If you read the credits at the back you'll see that he only consulted newspapers and magazines and did no real research. I can't go through all the mistakes, I really don't have the time, there are just too many. If it continues in this way then this is a work of complete and utter fiction.I loved "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and now I am frightened that if I knew anything whatsoever about "Everything" I would have found that that book too was filled with amusing but completely made up factoids.

Julie (jjmachshev)

What a hilarious, fascinating, and educational look at our wacky, wonderful, and WAY complicated language. If English is your mother tongue, this book will amaze and amuse you with interesting tidbits about just how our language evolved into the wonder it is. If you had to learn English as a second language (and more power to you), then bless your heart for taking on the task. You will read this book, and say YES, absolutely, I always wondered..., etc. Bill Bryson turns his sharp-eyes to "The Mother Tongue" and takes us all on a fabulous journey through and overview of the intricacies of human language. You will laugh, smile, and learn a few things while you're at it!!!

Mimi Hill

To be bored to death in French is ‘etre de Birmingham,’ literally ‘to be from Birmingham’ Sometimes I would play a little game where a group of friends would assemble 'facts'. These 'facts' were not actual facts, they were absurd pieces of nonsense presented as little 'well would you believe it?!' pieces of knowledge, Things like Queen Victoria being the first person to swim the English channel added only by the buoyancy provided by a stuffed kangaroo. It's surprisingly funny when you are drunk.Bill Bryson was clearly tapping into my wine-filled nonsense and using all of our 'facts' as facts.This book is the biggest assemblage of unmitigated nonsense ever passed off as being factual.To be full of crap in literary form is ‘to be full of Brysonisms’.


Published: 1990How I discovered: A Xmas present from Jamie, who is one of the world's biggest Bryson fans.What I liked: Everything! It's deliciously entertaining for word-lovers. Bryson has a wealth of knowledge and does his research well, presenting it all with his witty sarcasm and dry humor. There are chapters on history, etymology, dialects, spelling, grammar, surnames, and even swearing.What I didn't: I can't think of a single thing I didn't like. What I learned: Too much to state here. The book traces the English language back to its origins and documents its use (and abuse) ever since. Quote: By virtue of their brevity, dictionary definitions often fail to convey the nuances of English. A dictionary will tell you that tall and high mean much the same thing, but it won't explain to you that while you can apply either term to a building you can only apply tall to a person. On the strength of dictionary definitions alone a foreign visitor to your home could be excused for telling you that you have an abnormal child, that your wife's cooking is exceedingly odorous, and that your speech at a recent sales conference was laughable, and intend nothing but the warmest praise.

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