Meg's Reviews > The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
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Apr 19, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in March, 2011

Though we don’t have official travel dates yet, Neil & I are still expecting our move abroad to happen sometime in mid- to late-June. As such, part of my relocation prep has been to start reading up on our new home to be. The Lonely Planet had a list of recommended travel books about England that seemed to offer a perfect mix to help give me ideas on where we might like to focus our travels & explorations once we arrive.

The very first book on their list was from one of my favourite* travel writers, Bill Bryson. While the Lonely Planet listed his Notes from a Small Island, I actually decided to start with one of his earlier books, The Mother Tongue. The book’s subtitle, “English & How It Got That Way”, gets to the heart of the book's essence as an exploration of language, and particularly, the factors that shaped the development of modern English.

Several years ago now, I had read Bryson’s Made in America, about the development of American English and expressions peculiar to the U.S., and his entertaining historical approach to the topic easily made it one of the most entertaining and interesting non-fiction books I have ever read. Mother Tongue, not surprisingly, proved to be as similarly intriguing and captivating.

With chapters on subjects ranging from etymology (where words come from) and spelling to swearing and wordplay, the books was full of interesting anecdotes that often caught me either saying “huh” outloud (prompting a need to explain what I had just read to Neil if he happened to be in the room) or oftentimes laughing outright. To name just a few:

Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language, with an estimated 200-400 million more who speak it as their second language, making English the third most natively spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

English is one of the most rich languages in the world, with a particular love of multiple words that mean the same thing. (As Bryson explains, "something is not just big, it is large, immense, vast, capacious, bulky, massive, whopping, humongous.")

While we English speakers may find consonant combinations of other world languages quite daunting (such as Czech “vrch pln mlh” or the Welsh “pwy ydych chi”), our often-used combination of the “th” sound of “the” and “think” is remarkably rare in other world languages. (And when you think about, it is weird, right?)

One section in particular in which he outlined some key differences between British words vs. American words proved especially helpful. For instance, if staying at a hotel and needing a spare bed, I should not be surprised if asking for a “cot” resulted in the arrival of a baby’s crib, rather than one meant for an adult.

Additionally, I now feel well-prepared to learn how to correctly pronounce the names of British towns and names which may have no seeming relation as to how such words are spelled. For example, two of the colleges that are part of Cambridge University, Caius College and Magdalene College, are correctly pronounced “Keys College” and “Mawdlin College” respectively. Who would know??

There was a lot that I loved about this book. If you are in anyway interested in languages, or have always been a little curious why in English we say “four” and “fourteen” but suddenly feel the urge to drop the “u” and when spelling “forty”, then add this book to your reading list – you won’t be disappointed!

*this was not a typo – just part of my attempt to make my spelling & word usage adapt a little to the tradition of the “Mother Tongue”
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