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

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
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's review
Aug 03, 2011

really liked it

This was a really interesting read on the background and information on the history of English as a language. I initially picked up this book because it was written by one of my favorite authors ("A Walk in the Woods" was one of my favorite books as a high school student). However, it wasn't as funny as I've come to expect from Bryson. To be fair, it was only the third book he ever wrote, and I haven't read the first two of his books, so maybe his humorous writing just hadn't evolved yet to his more recent state. This book had funny moments, to be sure, but it was definitely more of a scholarly work than I had anticipated it being. Written in 1990, it is now more than 20 years out of date and doesn't cover topics such as how the advent of the internet and "text-speak" is pushing English to evolve. That aside, it still had some really interesting insights into our language. Throughout this book, I had several "liberal arts" moments (what I call it when connections are made with other parts of my life, in whatever form). One that sticks out was in the fourth chapter, which focused on the first thousand years of English's existence as a language; Bryson made the point that from the Norman invasion of what is now England in 1066 until the early 1400s, French would have been the language of the English court. I guess intuitively I should have known this based on my past history classes, but it was never something I thought about explicitly. Over the holidays, I re-watched a classic movie called "The Lion in Winter" (Katharine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole) which focuses on a Christmas holiday spent in 1183 by King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It turns out they should have all been speaking French! (Which makes sense, because Eleanor was born French, and Henry spent a portion of his early life in France.) Of course a Hollywood movie would be made in English, not French, but it was an interesting realization for me. I had several more of these epiphanies throughout "Mother Tongue". In short, a thought-provoking read, well worth the time.

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