Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

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Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

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The Mother Tongue is the story of the evolution of the English language, from its humble beginnings as a Germanic tongue to what it has evolved into over the centuries. The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow—though curiously no word for just plain snow. To them there is crunchy snow, soft snow, fresh snow, and old snow, but no word that just means snow.” This book contains more than you expect. Bill Bryson covers language itself with a focus on English. The book covers speech from a historical view, a physical view, an environmental view, a utilitarian view, and many other views. If you find the recorded version, you will want to play that version over again as it cruises through many concepts that leave you thinking and speculating how it could have all gone differently. Awful. Awful. I’m now retrospectively mad, five years later, that I once attended a talk by this man. Avoid. The advantage of the recorded version is that you hear the pronunciations. When it is a matter of spelling the reader will spell it out for you. Also, the reader can change accents to fit the dialect samples.

We naturally lament the decline of these languages, but it's not an altogether undiluted tragedy. Consider the loss to English literature, if Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Yeats, Wilde, and Ireland's other literary masters have written in what inescapably a fringe language, their work will be as little known to us as those poets in Iceland or Norway, and that would be a tragedy indeed. No country has given the word incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland, and for that reason alone we might be excused to a small, "selfish" celebration that English was the language of her greatest writers.” Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson, London: Penguin Books, 1990 (link is to a different, in-print edition). 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. The middle portion of the book gets very involved in examining the evolution of English spellings and pronunciations as it moved from Old English to Modern English, and the further hiving off of American English from British English. Some of this was really illuminating, but the parts discussing the minute details of spelling and grammatical shifts were slow-going unless you are truly a student of the language and I found somewhat less interesting. The Mother Tongue is somewhat dated. I did not realize it was published in 1990 until hearing "Soviet Union" mentioned in the present tense. His view about machine translation is way out-of-date. He talks about a giant Chinese keyboard, which in fact never caught on. The Wubi method, invented in 1986, encodes Chinese characters by the five shapes of strokes and converts them to alphabetic characters on a generic keyboard. It gained popularity before being replaced by the Intelligent Pinyin method, which facilitates the standard phonetic representation of Chinese characters. Of course, Bill Bryson couldn't have foreseen how the Internet would change English (it would be interesting to know).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. I'm a longtime fan of Bill Bryson, but I had never read this early nonfiction work of his and was delighted to see that my library had a copy of the audiobook.

On the other hand, as a foreigner who had to learn English (and I’m native in non-Roman language), Bryson's insight in this area was particularly interesting and accurate for me. Especially when it comes to intricate English pronunciation. So a big plus for that. I replied that in that case, Malayalam is my mother, and both Hindi and English are nannies. And I just happened to prefer my English nanny over my native one. She had no answer to that! Then he got into some languages I have a smattering of myself – French and German—and I began questioning. Some of it just sounded wrong, like the quote from an article that says most speakers of other languages aren’t aware there is such a thing as a thesaurus. And the clue is right there in the term ‘Latin alphabet’ that it wasn’t originally crafted for use by English speakers, either.)Nevertheless, it's a fun read. I've learned a lot. Maoris of New Zealand have 35 words for dung. The Arabs have 6000 words for camels and camel equipment. The aborigines of Tasmania have a word for every type of trees but no word for the concept of tree. The word "nice" meant "stupid and foolish" in 1290. In the next 700 years, its meaning has changed so many times that it is impossible to tell what sense Jane Austen intended when she wrote to a friend: "You scold me so much in a nice long letter which I have received from you." The differences between American English and British English make me laugh! The history of swear words is fascinating. "Bloody" was worse than the F-word? And those Victorian sensibilities! Who knew the biggest contribution of American English to the language was actually "OK"! 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. 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.

No place in the English-speaking world is more breathtakingly replete with dialects than Great Britain. In America, people as far apart as New York State and Oregon speak with largely identical voices. According to some estimates almost two thirds of the American population, living on some 8o percent of the land area, speak with the same accent—a quite remarkable degree of homogeneity. He repeatedly dings Irish (and even more so Welsh) for having spellings that are bizarre, strange, overly convoluted, etc, when what he should mean is that the Irish language attaches sound values to the Latin alphabet that are different from those used by English.Bryson repeatedly shows that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about when it comes to the English language. Take this for instance: William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. He settled in England in 1977, and worked in journalism until he became a full time writer. He lived for many years with his English wife and four children in North Yorkshire. He and his family then moved to New Hampshire in America for a few years, but they have now returned to live in the UK. Well, a sample of two is not enough to go on, apparently because this turned out disappointing, for two primary reasons: 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. When the first inhabitants of the continent arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 they found a world teeming with flora, fauna, and geographical features such as they had never seen. “It is probably not too much to say,” wrote Otto Jespersen, “that there never was an instance in history when so many new names were needed.” Among the new words the Australians devised, many of them borrowed from the aborigines, were…”

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