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


I quit reading this book after reading a short list of all the errors in the book. Bryson certainly isn't a linguist, but he doesn't appear to be much of a researcher either:


I found this history of English to be quite readable and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. While somewhat dated, it still has interesting information. I've read about the general history of English more than once, but I certainly wasn't bored reading Bryson's version. I especially appreciate this book for the chapters on names, swearing, and wordplay, and also about the use of English around the world, as these were topics that I haven't read much about in other books on English. That said, I sometimes found myself skimming the plentiful details supplied, looking for the main idea sentences. I would also take issue with the spelling chapter. Bryson's premise is that English spelling is pretty much capricious and inconstant; I would argue it's a bit more systematic than it first appears. I appreciate that a word's history and meaning are revealed (or at least alluded to) in its spelling. Still, It's rare that I read a non-fiction book like this one in one sitting, but I couldn't put it down.


If you love word play, wonder why English and Americans have different words for the same objects, or are curious why Italian, French, and Spanish are so similar (even to English occasionally), this book is for you.Bryson follows the evolution of speech, and particularly English, from the Cro-Magnons to the present (that being about 1990, when the book was published). He revels in details such as Shakespeare's prolific invention of new words (who knew?) and total disregard for spelling. End chapters discuss word games such as crosswords, anagrams, and palindromes, and even the fine art of swearing. Note- some "ultimate insults", at one time, were in common useage, and some words common today would get your nose punched 400 years ago (Again- who knew?)Bryson has a well-tuned sense of humor, and he sprinkles amusing anecdotes throughout the book, both of which are sorely needed as this book would be too dry and scholarly otherwise


A topic of interest written by one of my favourite authors - I was excited to find it on a bookshelf but in the end it took quite a long time to read. While reading this book it felt like Bryson deliberately got muddled and wallowed in the irregularities and complexities of language, so in a sense it wasn't as clear to read as A Short History of Nearly Everything. In some reviews of A Short History of Nearly Everything I read that some factual mistakes had crept into print as they have done in The Mother Tongue, but these are few and far between and of no significance. Probably what I like most about reading books by Bill Bryson is his sense of humour and focus on the trivial. While there is a lot of trivia in the book (St Patrick was the son of a Roman who was abducted to Ireland), I definitely found The Mother Tongue the least humourous of his books that I've read. The chapters look at different parts of language and often cast a fresh eye over them, questioning spellings, idioms and accents that we wouldn't normally bat an eye at. The Mother Tongue has a very broad approach which also includes: the history of English, dialects, English as global language, word games, swearing and grammar.At times the book seems a bit dated (it's almost 20 years old), but generally it is relevant and interesting to read.


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.


I know exactly a little bit about English, and a little bit less about linguistics in general. Studied a few foreign languages, took a linguistics class or two in college. I'm what you might call a big fan of language. A dabbler. Certainly not an expert. But boy, did I find this book infuriating.My problem with this book is that it gets so much right, and so much wrong. The example that really set me off was his treatment of the Welsh language. To Bryson, Welsh is "as unpronounceable as it looks", and Welsh pronunciations "rarely bear much relation to their spellings." He then spouts off with a series of jokes that are so ethnocentric and condescending that, if you took them at face value, you couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor backward speakers of silly old Welsh.The problem is, he's completely wrong. I happened to study the phonology and orthography of Welsh for about a week in that freshman linguistics class (I know, that makes me a big authority, right?) but in that week I learned something Bryson apparently never bothered to look up: Welsh orthography is remarkably regular, about as regular as Spanish. It's not at all difficult if you bother to learn the rules, which are far simpler than those of English. (The fact that I learned them in one week, and remember them decades later, should be some indication of how easy they are.) The phoneme represented by the double-l is called a lateral fricative, and yes, it's hard to pronounce if you don't speak Welsh, but that does not mean it's sometimes pronounced "kl" and other times "thl" as Bryson suggests. It is always pronounced just like it's spelled. But Bryson's Anglo-American tin ear failed to pick that up, and he took his ignorance and turned it into a cheap joke at another culture's expense.Knowing that he got Welsh so wrong made me doubt all of the rest of the information in the book. And that's a real shame, because it covers such fascinating topics, and it's so very entertainingly written. But it's hard to enjoy Bryson's jokes when you have this nagging suspicion that he's bending the truth for the sake of a snappy punchline.

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.

Molly Pace

The English language is spoken by about 300 million people worldwide. It is the most widely used language on the planet…sometimes with mixed results. This message appeared as a warning to English-speaking motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.” To be fair, though, the unfortunate sign-maker was not attempting a simple task. Any language where the unassuming word “fly” signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled. Imagine learning English as a second language and discovering that a person who says “I could care less” and one who says “I couldn’t care less” mean the same thing! The English language has about 200,000 words in common use: for comparison, that’s about twice as many as there are in French. One of the big reasons for this is synonyms or different words that mean the same thing. For instance, in English, you can say that you’re happy, glad, pleased, cheerful, ecstatic, thrilled, joyful, delighted, jovial, in high spirits or on cloud nine. English is the only language on the planet that has a thesaurus… or the need of one. So how does a single language end up so convoluted? And how does a language so full of verbal booby traps become the world’s most widely used tongue? These questions are the driving force behind Bill Bryson’s book “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that way.” From changes in pronunciation and grammar to puns and curse words, Bryson gives an overview of the facets of the English language and its use, both current and historical. His explanation of the development of the language is complete with humorous anecdotes and thousands of little-known facts from history and philology—the study of languages.


Is the fact that my grandfather gave me this book reason enough to keep reading? Some of the stories are interesting, and even reasonably factual, but at other times the failed fact-checking is glaringly obvious--and come on, the perpetuation of the "Eskimo Snow Myth"?I think the lesson here is that as a linguist, I should not be reading popular writings about language. It's true that there are a thousand interesting things to encounter in the history of the English language, replete as it is with situations of language contact. I think what bothers me most is the very thinly veiled "linguo"centrism that turns it from a piece of enthusiastic writing about the English language into a poorly-argued case for why English is better than every other language on the planet. As a native English speaker who spends every day contemplating and studying other languages, I can't disagree strongly enough with a message like that.


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.


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.

Peter Macinnis

I'm a writer, and I don't hold with slam-dunking other writers in print, because they can't reply. In a more open medium like this, I am prepared to serve Bryson as he serves others, but with a little less barren pedantry.It's an excellent book, but like so many foreigners, Bryson thinks a quick tour makes him an expert on all things Australian. WRONG!!We don't say cookie, we say biscuit. Getting that wrong is clumsy.We don't normally say "labor", we call it labour. The sole exception is in the name of the Australian Labor Party, which adopted that spelling in the 19th century.Bomboras are in the sea, not in rivers, a didgeridoo is not a form of trumpet, and outback is not an Aboriginal word (though bombora is), and we don't normally say "technicolour yawn": it was a joke put forward by Barry Humphries, not common usage.I could go on and demolish his assertions about the Australian accents (he seems to think that any one of us speaks one, only) and if somebody is going to be arch about other people's proofing, page 139, the first page of chapter 10 needs to be looked at HARD.I like the book, I just didn't appreciate the superior tone of somebody who is, like the rest of us, inclined to slip from time to time.


I thought this book would be ideal for me, since language is part of my degree and one of my interests. It turns out that was not the case, as I often found the book inaccurate and disorganized, a mere hodgepodge, as some of Bryson's books are. The first half of the book covered the history of the English language, which I am familiar with. I would have liked to know more, but this was just a bagatelle of often inaccurate or incomplete snippets of information. The second half was better, and redeemed the book to some extent. I may have enjoyed it more partly because I was not familiar with the topic. However, it bugged me that the second half might be just as misleading as the first. Not the sort of feeling that inspires confidence. I bought the book partly because of the subject matter and partly because the author has written other books that I enjoyed, but in the end because the first page made me laugh. Well I "had the last laugh" right there in the bookshop, since no more were to be had in this book. So please don't think that it will be just fine if you aren't picky about the scholarship. This is for Bryson fans only.

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!!!


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.

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