This is the third book by Bill Bryson that I’ve done so far this year; as you might have guessed, I’m a fan. I also realize that doing multiple works by the same other sort of flouts the spirit of the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” meme, but given that each of Bryson’s work is, while stylistically similar, topically variant, so this salves my conscience marginally.
The Mother Tongue, which I understand to be Bryson’s second major book after The Lost Continent, jumps ahead of its predecessor in terms of writing maturity; no small feat when you consider that Bryson is tackling the entirety of English linguistics, a potentially dry and troublesome area. And yet, just as he did with Made in America (my first exposure to him), he manages to make the topic absolutely fascinating, including a sizable amount of hilarious examples, anecdotes, and even a chapter on swearing. Consider this quote, concerning the current dearth of students studying foreign languages:
There is evidence to suggest that some members of Congress aren’t fully sympathetic with the necessity for a commercial nation to be multilingual. As one Congressman quite seriously told Dr. David Edwards, head of the Joint National Committee on Lanuages, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” [Quoted in the Guardian, April 30, 1988]
Though the information I gleaned from this book isn’t quite as useful as that in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, it is nonetheless illuminating, especially given how much we take language for granted. English as we know it has a long and scandalous history, having been ravished by every other culture and language within sailing distance, having given birth to no less than 80 creoles around the world, and being both the easiest and the most frustratingly obtuse language in the world. It’s fascinating on a number of different levels, but perhaps I only think so because linguistics and orthography have always interested me (I briefly considered it as a career choice while in junior high, but decided that it lacked a certain… marketability).
If you liked Eats, Shoots & Leaves (and I know a number of you did), then you might very well find this book excellent as well. It lacks a bit of Truss’ vitriol, but it’s no less compelling, and I happen to find Bryson’s wit even keener.