- The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- Year: 1991
- Pages: 272
Bill Bryson is a noted fan of the English language. My first real exposure to him was a $0.25 hardcover copy of Made of America1, which was all it took to cement a deep and abiding love for everything the man writes. The Mother Tongue is his first attempt at linguistic writing, and while perhaps I didn’t enjoy it as much as Made In America, it is nonetheless a wonderful book.
Bryson starts by considering just how versatile, how widespread, and how confusing the English language is, and how these very traits seem, to some degree, mutually exclusive. Yet puzzingly, a language which is relatively recent in its current incarnation (certainly recent compared to its Latinate cousin and its Germanic forebears and ProtoIndoEuropean great-grandfeather), has managed to become a force to be reckoned with throughout the world. Ironically, and I couldn’t help but notice this, Bryson’s message in the book—that English is, also ironically, the new lingua franca–is to some degree going away. Certainly, if conservatives are any trustworthy source, America itself is today being overrun with Spanish-speaking immigrants other “impure” dialects.
After an impressive introduction, Bryson takes us back to the earliest days of what might be called “English,” which was some strange offspring of Saxonic and Anglo (the latter of which actually died out completely). As it morphed into English, having deviated from (what is today) German some years before, it all eradicated Celtic, picked up a lot of French (and Latin, by extension) after the Norman conquest, changed rapidly around the time of Chaucer, got fast and loose at the time of Shakespeare, and even today shows a remarkable flexibility that almost nullifies its inherent complexity.
Bryson quotes Baugh and Cable extensively. The first time I read The Mother Tongue, I had not read the former’s wonderful History of the English Language, and so I felt as though Bryson’s book was both more sensible and more predictable this time around. If you hadn’t, be prepared for a large-scale information download when you read The Mother Tongue. I personally, would also recommend Baugh and Cable’s delightful tome, if for no other reason than reference.
But such interesting information does not entirely belong to the eras of vikings or playrights. Some of Bryson’s most interesting storytelling is contemporary. The idea that British English and American English are rapidly drifiting apart, for instance, is addressed (the result? In vocabulary, yes, but not so much in syntax), as well as a juxtaposition of English’s dominance as a global language with its penchant for malapropism2.
One final point that Bryson drives home is that grammatical prescriptivists (i.e. people, such as dictionary-writers, who try to dictate grammatical or orthographic policy) are Sisyphus; though there is merit to promoting standards of usage (I promote just such a thing on the web), English as much as any language is a living, breathing thing. It is eminently populist, driven by usage and not mandate, which is why we inherit many of our Latin words from the Vulgar Latin, and not the bookish classical Latin3
I think that Bryson may get even more excited about linguistics than he does about travel, which is saying something. The Mother Tongue is a marvelous book, following up magnificently with his rather more continental Made in America. If you like Bryson, like linguistics, or you’re just curious about English, pick this up.
- Actually, this is not true: A Walk in the Woods was recommended to me as a young man, but I could not then appreciate the book, and returned it to the library mostly unread.[↩]
- e.g. Engrish, which we associate with Asian cultures but which is equally the province of Western European cultures as well.[↩]
- By way of illustration, the classical feles, or cat, gives rise to the scientific “feline,” but the vulgar cattus leads to the more pedestrian “cat.”[↩]