I wanted to read this book when I thought Bryson was a little more dry and scholarly and a little less fun and quirky. I thought it would be more systematic instead of picking up on the fun parts of language history. I read another of his books, realized I was mistaken, and still wanted to read another because they are fun and entertaining. They can make a long drive or a long run much less terrible.
Cover Image via Goodreads
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
Other books by Bill Bryson reviewed on this blog:
Made In America
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
Listening to this book was a joy. I didn’t have to worry about the different pronunciations Bryson talked about or read them in the phonetic alphabet because the narrator did it for me! A lot of this book talked about the language’s shift from old English to modern English, the words we lost and gained along the way, where words come from, and how they’re preserved or dropped. It’s clear there were a few resources Bryson relied heavily on for certain chapters. He organized the book well and was able to explain how certain words come to be in a very amusing way. I wasn’t ready for this book to be funny and I got looked at while running at the gym for spitting out a few giggles.
There were two parts of the book I really enjoyed. The first was the detail of how British English and American English came to be pronounced differently. Bryson detailed how English was before the American Settlers came over and then how the two changed since then. I ‘ve always wondered why we speak so differently. The theory that they will one day become so dissimilar as to be different languages is interesting, but as Bryson points out, modern technology has Americans, Brits, Australians, and South Africans speaking to each other via the internet so frequently, that future differences are less likely to happen.
My other favorite part was talking about names and how that developed. It’s fairly easy for me to see where my name, Stevens, came from (likely a shortening of Stevenson, ‘Steven’s son’) but it was fun to hear about other last names. Bryson also went into details about place names and I was happy to hear so many Michigan cities mentioned. Of course, Detroit coming from the French was mentioned, but I was glad he also mentioned Milan. I first saw the city name written down and asked, “Where is Milan?” pronouncing it like the Italian city. I got a stern look and was reproached, “It’s MY-lan.” With a long I. Same with Lima, Versailles, and Charlotte (other cities I drive by in the Midwest pronounced LYE-ma, ver-SALES, and shar-LOT).
The chapter on the dictionary was the least interesting to me. It did emphasize how quickly the language was evolving, but I thought there was a lot more history on a few men in this chapter than any developments in the language. I would have liked to see a shorter chapter on it and maybe a bit more focus on how the dictionary preserved pronunciations or changed them.
The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Stephen McLaughlin. Kudos to him for having to pronounce so many words in a variety of languages and accents. One of the later chapters had to deal with word games in French and he rambled them off like a pro. If he was off with any of his pronunciations, I’m none the wiser because his Spanish was spot-on when used and the little I know of Italian and German was well done, too.
Bryson’s focus was on how the language has changed, but he also talked about things that had stayed the same. I appreciated hearing about how words had changed very little since Shakespeare’s time. He also focused on how it could evolve going forward which was almost alarming. English words are being adopted into most world languages mainly due to innovation and English words being used for things and concepts that did not exist previously. If you know another language, think of words for technology and new concepts. In Spanish, I’ve heard both ‘el internet’ and ‘el márketing’ used even if there are Spanish words for these things (el red y el mercadotecnica). Bryson points out that Japanese does this the most. With English words infiltrating foreign languages and English becoming the common language for business, we might start to lost the beauty of other languages and in fact, start to lose speakers of those languages.
Writer’s Takeaway: Bryson hides some jokes in his writing, like when talking about where the last name ‘Bush’ came from. I enjoyed these small jokes tucked into the book. I’m not sure how well they would work in fiction, but in non-fiction, which can be dry, Bryson kept it interesting and fun. I really appreciated this in a book that easily could have been bogged down in details.
I enjoyed this book and I’m sure I have loads of fun facts to spring on people now. Four out of Five Stars.
Until next time, write on.
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The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson | The Aroma of Books