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The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
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The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  21,246 ratings  ·  1,435 reviews
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 upro ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 28th 1991 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 1990)
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Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
68th out of 3,286 books — 5,288 voters
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Community Reviews

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Dan Schwent
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.

So, Bill Bryson + cheap equals insta-buy for me, apparently. Too bad even Bill Bryson couldn't make this terribly entertaining.

I have a long history as "the obscure facts guy" at social gatherings, at least, I did when people still invited me to such things. However, even I had trouble sticking with this one at times.

Old Bill is i
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Ceci
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 mo
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Michael
I have to share my discontent with the world after keeping the words bottled up inside me for so long.

I bought this book about two or three years ago, thinking it might be an entertaining read that might fill me in on some of the historical aspects of the English language. I had already read "A Short History Of Nearly Everything", and, knowing nothing about science, thought it was a rather entertaining read, even though I had some... well, doubts about the book since I tend to favour more system
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Punk
Non-fiction. Published in 1990, this book is already a little out of date. In its first pages, Bryson reports OED editor Robert Burchfield's theory that American English and British English are drifting apart so rapidly that within two hundred years we won't be able to understand each other. That was a theory made back when cell phones still required a battery the size of an unabridged dictionary, long before the internet became such a large part of the way the world communicates, in a time when ...more
Julie (jjmachshev)
Jul 16, 2008 Julie (jjmachshev) rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everybody
Recommended to Julie (jjmachshev) by: Eastofoz (and thanks!)
Shelves: 2008-reads
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 Mo ...more
Cassidy
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.

My problem with this book is that it gets so much right, and so much wrong. The example that really set me off was his treatment of the Welsh language. To Bryson, Welsh is "as unpronounceable as it looks
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Aleksi
Bryson's book on the English language is a compendium of linguistic trivia interspersed with the author's biased and misinformed musings on the history and features of the language. Published in 1990, the book was written before Internet changed the way the world communicates and hence a lot of the content regarding the spread of languages is hopelessly outdated by now.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. Therefore his attempts to explain the popularity and status of English as t
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Rebecca
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 ...more
Robert
I picked this up thinking that Bryson had, in my experience, always been entertaining, witty and informative and that this was a topic of much interest to me, so how could I go wrong?

Well, a sample of two is not enough to go on, apparently because this turned out disappointing, for two primary reasons:

1. It was first published in 1990 and it has not aged well. Some statistics are well out of date, Bryson using a figure of 56 million for the population of Britain, with 60 million more accurate at
...more
Stephanie
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 wi
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Ceridwen
Sorry Mr Bryson, but as a historical linguist of English myself, I cannot take this book seriously. There are simply too many mistakes that have no place in a well-researched book. The subject matter is not that hard, so I can only guess "The Mother Tongue" was written in such a hurry that you only consulted one or two sources, where it should have been five or six. The history of English is not something you learn from reading one textbook; there is a lot of ongoing research and debate. And mos ...more
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
...more
Charity
Did you know that drumstick was coined in the 19th century because polite society could not bring itself to utter the word leg? Or that Shakespeare gave us no less than 1700 new words including barefaced, frugal, dwindle, and summit?

Bill Bryson, an American transplanted to England, traces the history of English on both sides of the Atlantic. He explains the evolutionary accident that altered the human larynx and enabled us to speak. He traces the origins of English's naughtiest words, and offers
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Corrielle
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 ...more
Michael
Jul 17, 2010 Michael rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michael by: Kim
Shelves: non-fiction, 1990s
Recently I read ‘Made In America’ by Bill Bryson, so I thought it would be appropriate to read ‘Mother Tongue’ as well. Though there was a fair chunk of similar information in both books, ‘Mother Tongue’ is just more relevant. While ‘Made in America’ focused on the history of English in America; ’Mother Tongue’ focuses mainly on the history of English in general. Trying to cover questions like, “Why is there a ‘u’ in four and not in forty?” or “Why do we tell a lie and tell the truth?”

Bill Bryso
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Bob
Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson, London: Penguin Books, 1990 (link is to a different, in-print edition).

Summary: This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

Has it every occurred to you how many different meanings there are for the word fly? It can be an insect, a means of travel, a verb form of "to flee
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Jill
Sep 03, 2008 Jill rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: adela
I got this book from Madonna.

Loving every page of this book, as it really keeps rolling on and keeps getting more and more interesting.

However, I have to be fair to Steve who said something to the effect of "it was the same thing over and over again - every page: 'The English Language is f***ed up... blah blah blah... look how f***ed up the English Language is... blah blah blah... here's another example of how f***ed up English is, as a language... blah blah blah' etc."
He's totally right. That's
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Trevor
You know, there are probably better books on the history of the English language, there are probably deeper books on the nature of linguistics, there are probably a million reasons why you might not read this book - but it tackles something that we all ought to be interested in, our mother tongue, with style, flare and humour.

Bryson says in this that he had his mum sending him newspaper cuttings - that is such a lovely image. I read this years ago, tried to read it to the kids at night, but the
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Clouddancer
I'd had great hopes for this book, yet I never got beyond the first chapter simply because of the hideously large number of factual errors popping up on each page. The one thing this book is good at is - sadly - the perpetuation of myths, false beliefs and urban legends among the general public. As a fledgeling linguist I would give it a minus 1 rating if I could.
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
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Anne
Why was this book even published? There are so many errors, inaccuracies, misconceptions, misunderstandings and whatnot, I don't even know where to begin. (And I'm not even a linguist.)
All of this makes me question all the other "facts" I don't know anything about, I simply don't know if I've learned more about them from reading this book.

The Acknowledgements of the book mentions several people, but I hope for their sake that he didn't follow their advice. Otherwise they should receive a dishono
...more
Andrew
I quit reading this book after reading a short list of all the errors in the book. Bryson certainly isn't a linguist, but he doesn't appear to be much of a researcher either: http://everything2.com/title/The+Moth...
S.
Oct 19, 2014 S. rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: hookah
although some sources indicate there's a two week break in the schedule for my dear beloved Buttercup GREENFIELDS, the information is unclear whether it starts today or tomorrow. in any case, I did merely preparatory stuff today, socking away folding bicycles in little nooks and crannies, and possibly assessing as many as half a dozen abandoned bikes in total. what can I say. developed countries have odd ideas about what constitutes "junk," and actually I'm tempted to go look up the market rate ...more
Garver

Thanks to Oliver for putting this one up here. It's a great tour of the history of the English language, from its origins to its current diffusion as the de facto business language of the world. The story of English is told with Bryson's characteristic wit and mother tongue-in-cheek asides -- though the book is a bit outdated and contains some points now known to be apocryphal.

I prefer nonfiction that changes the way you put things in context, that gives you a new lens to view everyday things.
...more
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 publ
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Johnbarefield
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 red
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Molly Pace
The English language is spoken by about 300 million people worldwide. It is the most widely used language on the planet…sometimes with mixed results. This message appeared as a warning to English-speaking motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.” To be fair, though, the unfortunate sign-maker was not attempting a simple task. Any language where the un ...more
David
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 an ...more
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 ...more
bup
Sep 08, 2012 bup rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2012
A couple of friends of mine recommended Bill Bryson as an author, and this is the first book I got my hands on. While breezy and interesting, I guess I hoped for something more cohesive. Essentially, each chapter is a self-contained essay, some of which are at best tangentially related to how English got the way it is (a chapter on wordplay, for instance, told me nothing I didn't know and seemed like an excuse for Bryson to list some beloved palindromes).

I found chapters that explained how much
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  • The Story of English
  • The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
  • Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
  • The Stories of English
  • The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
  • The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
  • The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
  • The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
  • Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z
  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling
  • Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language
  • The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
  • Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language
  • The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
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Bill Bryson 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.

In The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's hilarious first t
...more
More about Bill Bryson...
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail A Short History of Nearly Everything Notes from a Small Island In a Sunburned Country At Home: A Short History of Private Life

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“People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis. Syllables, words, sentences run together like a watercolor left in the rain. To understand what anyone is saying to us we must separate these noises into words and the words into sentences so that we might in our turn issue a stream of mixed sounds in response. If what we say is suitably apt and amusing, the listener will show his delight by emitting a series of uncontrolled high-pitched noises, accompanied by sharp intakes of breath of the sort normally associated with a seizure or heart failure. And by these means we converse. Talking, when you think about it, is a very strange business indeed.” 29 likes
“At a conference of sociologists in America in 1977, love was defined as "the cognitive-affective state characterized by intrusive and obsessive fantasizing concerning reciprocity of amorant feelings by the object of the amorance." That is jargon - the practice of never calling a spade a spade when you might instead call it a manual earth-restructuring implement - and it is one of the great curses of modern English.” 20 likes
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