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

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 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.

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.

Jenny Smith

Ah, Bill Bryson- it's always a pleasure to read your work. Intelligent, funny, gently informative- a rare combination. Mother Tongue details the colourful evolution of the English language, or should I say this continued evolution... Although published 21 years ago now, there are still many aspects of it that are relevant. However, there are many words around these days- chav, etc- that I daresay might not have been understood in the early nineties. Bryson explores how terms like this enter public consciousness to such a degree that there comes a time when you can't remember them NOT being there! At the moment, I am transcripting my grandad's life story from tapes that he recorded in the early 90's, and he often uses terms that are not in use today, such as 'the pictures' for the cinema. Who knows what the English language will be like towards the end of the 21st century? My grandchildren will probably be using words and terms that I don't understand...probably mostly related to imminent technology that I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams. Bryson explores all aspects of English, from the origin of names, swear-words, different dialects between and within countries, and of course, of the language itself. The present-day prevalence of English is misleading- it is more of a recent language, and more of a conglomorate of other langauges, than you might first assume. He even manages to make the explanation of grammar (a word that makes any English student shudder- or is that just me?) fun for the reader. The different dialects between and within countries was obviously one of the more interesting parts for me, having lived in Australia for a year and acquiring a Canadian boyfriend. It's crazy how people who speak the same language cannot understand each other; Patrick and I must have at least one linguistic misunderstanding every few weeks. Of course, I know of a few North-Americanisms from watching American films and comedies, but I honestly had no idea that words such as 'gutted', 'jumper', 'zebra crossing' and the greeting 'are you alright?' were so distinctly British. I knew that sweets were 'candy' in North America, but who knew they were 'lollies' in Australia? One of Britain's greatest assets- and frustrations for outsiders, probably- is our vast array of accents. 'Dinner' and 'lunch' mean one and the same in the North and South of England respectively; the former is the South's evening meal, which is called 'tea' in much of the North. Confused? Me too! But I LOVE the rich diversity of English dialects; it makes our tiny, often unpopular country all the more interesting and three-dimensional. One thing I have learnt from traveling is the arrogance of the English when it comes to language. We just let other nations speak English rather than try to speak in their language. I have asked in travellers what they think of this; they just shrugged and said English was the 'travelling language'. They were probably being polite, but this context made reading Mother Tongue all the more fascinating for me. Why is English the language that everybody speaks? If it was not the main language of the USA- a huge global presence both politically and in the media- would everybody still feel the need to learn English? A tentative debate, especially among (the few) patriotic Brits. The reason the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand speak English is because of British colonisation, but ironically, I think the English language would have found it more difficult to survive without these nations. Our reliance on fellow English speakers was really brought home to us in China, where often nobody spoke English; we couldn't even find an English-speaking policeman in Beijing after the tea-scam incident. The Chinese characters meant that we couldn't even GUESS road-signs or shop names...thank god for train times being shown in regular numbers at train stations, or we'd never have gotten anywhere. I'm ashamed to say that this was the only country in which we used our Lonely Planet phrasebook everyday. In other Asian countries, learning 'hello', 'thank-you' and 'goodbye' was enough; their proficiency in English allowed us to be lazy. After the experience in China, I've definitely learnt that we should NEVER just 'assume'' that people will understand us...there's no reason why the majority of Chinese (people involved in business aside) should learn English. If they want to, that's fantastic, but by no means should it be expected of them for our benefit. I apologise for mostly rabbiting on about my own experiences with English instead of the book, although this is by no means a reflection of the book's quality; Bryson's enthusiastic writing just accentuated my passion for language. His love for English is truly infectious, and he has half-inspired, half-put me off teaching English as a foreign language! It is a daunting, exciting prospect- Mother Tongue makes you realise just how complex English is- but I'm determined to try it at some point. I would love to read an updated version of this book, to see Bryson's opinion of the future of English right now. My prediction? After traveling Asia and managing to speak English pretty much everywhere (apart from China), I believe that tourism and the media will ensure the survival of English for a good few years to come. Saying that, I also hope that the English-speaking world will wake up out of their language laziness and start learning other languages too...this can only enhance empathy, understanding and friendships between nations.

Vicki Beyer

For years friends have been telling me that I would love Bill Bryson's work. We have a lot in common: expatriated mid-Westerners, sense of humor, love of travel, similar interests. So when I saw this book in an airport bookstore, I decided to take the plunge.Generally speaking, it was a good book; a well organized survey of the field. I truly enjoyed several parts of it. But, alas, it didn't reach out and grab me and, for the first time in a long time, I finished a book feeling that I didn't get my money's worth (perhaps the fact that the book was in an over-priced airport bookstore contributed, but it's not the only reason).I was distracted early on by his explanations of certain word usage in Australia and Japan which, from my own experiences in those places, I know to be incorrect or inaccurate. Needless to say, this caused me to question the accuracy of other information in the book, which was a further distraction.I think next time I'll try one of Bryson's travel-related books and see if he does better with that.


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.


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.


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."

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 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.


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.


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 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.


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.

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.

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