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

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
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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 systematic and precise literature over a tapestry of facts with entertainment and jokes woven in.

I also believe this to be one of the few books I have on my Goodreads shelves worthy of one star only.


Before I start, let me tell you two things: it has been a long time since I read the book, so my memory may not be as fresh anymore.

The second thing I would like to mention is that I have some kind of idea about linguistics, but am not a linguist; where I am, however, a kind of expert, is in the study of foreign languages. I am therefore intimately acquainted with the workings of many foreign languages -- though almost all of them are European. I have also rather extensively studied the historical connections between languages and their classification in language families and so on.

It is painfully obvious that Bryson speaks no foreign languages. Fine. Neither does Chomsky and he knows a thing or two about linguistics. You don't have to be a multilingual prodigy to study linguistics, after all. But I digress.
Bryson makes the same mistake most monolingual speakers of any language make: they think of their language as something unique. Bryson tries to justify the popularity of the English language not with historical or political arguments (because I am sure that the colonization of a significant part of the world by the British Empire and the subsequent cultural and political hegemony of the United States had nothing to do with it -- nooo, English is magic!), but rather seems to believe that English has, through some kind of divine intervention, been miraculously endowed with characteristics that have made it "beat the other languages"... as if linguistics were some kind of free-market economy where the best product gets the biggest share of the market.
Bryson then tries to argue the point with facts that are, while true for the most part, totally irrelevant. Seriously, this is like reading a paper by a student who's been watching one too many linguistic quiz shows on ITV, if such a thing existed; someone who likes to read trivia sections, and then pieces together the information obtained therefrom and tries to pass it off as knowledge to people unfortunate enough to be more ignorant than him.
One "fact" that makes the English language so great, he says, is that it has "so many more words than all the other languages". How many words a language has, Bill, is not only something that cannot accurately be ascertained, but also something that is completely irrelevant. Why? In brief, language create composita in a different way, for instance; so where you might create a million different random words in German, in other languages, you have to link them together, meaning you will have less dictionary hits. Not that that has any bearing on the "quality" of the language. Some languages even HAVE to make more words because they have agglutinative qualities (such as Hungarian and Turkish; meaning they lump prefixes, suffixes, and other elements together, creating big lump words). Also, English is the dominant language of science; as such, a lot of the scientific vocabulary is included in dictionaries. Not that these words are usually English (except for the newer sciences like computer science, of course); they often come from Latin or Ancient Greek anyway. There are also more dictionaries being produced in English on account of it being more "popular", and the commercial production of English being more viable. As such, its lexicography can be assumed to be more advanced. "Word count" is as irrelevant as the number of brain cells or the size of the brain with regards to intelligence.
This is my biggest beef with Bill's book. At one point, I had to stop reading. I should read it again and reiterate some of the other numerous "arguments" Bill Bryson puts forward in favour of the English language. I can only advise the author to commit himself to the study of foreign languages for a while, and to understand that "fun facts", no matter how objectively true they are, don't always have the meaning or significance someone thinks they have if one is not familiar with the field being discussed. Unfortunately, Bryson probably thought that he can easily trespass on this territory, since everyone who is able to speak must be a linguist.
My review may sound harsh, but this book definitely does more harm than good.
And people should remember that "fun fact" books, be they about natural sciences or linguistics, do not represent knowledge. I am sure that people endowed with a deeper understanding of natural science have shaken their head at "A Short History Of Nearly Everything" as well.
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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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Jennifer Thank god I wasn't the only one who was looking forward to this book for the same reasons as you've outlined, only to feel like there something fundamentally awful about it. I'm only 19 pages in and from a skim of bits of the rest of the chapters, it doesn't feel like it gets much better.
I'll still keep reading for information's sake, but in terms of how it's written, it's kind of ethnocentric and the arguments just feel so weak.

Rebecca Hear hear! I was so incredibly infuriated by the first chapter of this book I couldn't continue it. Almost every sentence I read I knew for a fact to be false!

message 3: by Shelley (new) - added it

Shelley thank heavens. I thought it was just me! I agree totally.

David I didn't get that impression at all. I think you misunderstood his intentions.

He did mention that one of the positive aspects of English is the copious number of words and the resulting large number of variations and shades of meaning. But I don't he ever implied that that was the reason why English is so wide-spread.

He also spends a great deal of time talking about how weird, confusing, and inconsistent English is.

Overall I never got the impression that he's saying that English is superior to other languages. The book is mostly just a collection of facts about how the language evolved and became the strange mix of words and grammar that it is today.

Jacks Aradio I think some of the harsher reviews here are missing the tongue in cheek style of writing that Bryson approaches all subjects with. Perhaps you have to be an American born English speaker who also think America and English aren't so great to understand the sarcasm and poking of fun at English that he writes with. I don't think anywhere in the book he claims to be a linguist or an expert of any kind. He's just a guy trying to make some sense of the history of his language and this is his journey. If you want a deep and impenetrable history of linguistics why on earth would you pick up a book from an airport bookshop that's 24 years old and only 245 pages long?

Relax people, no one should take any book non-fiction or fiction at its word and to heart. That's how we ended up with religious fanatics over simple folklore and fairy tales that were handed down and taken too seriously (i.e. the Bible). It's just a book by just another fallible person, I'm sure he's thrilled to have sparked such debate and interest in the history of languages. Now go write your book that has every last line researched and agreed upon by all the armchair experts on the internet and let's see how boring that book is and how long it takes to write (not to mention how long it ends up being). Good luck to you!

Sally Wallz I'm on Bill's side too. I happened to somehow just pluck this gem off the shelf of a local bookstore and found it followed (often to the very phrases and literary examples used by my lecturer in English Language: Past & Future at Uni) to a tee what I have just spent the past 7-8 weeks studying; Anglo-Saxon and the history and formation of the English Language as we know it today.

I agree, Bill is quite tongue in cheek, but this is refreshing and makes learning about an often dry subject matter laden with historical references and linguistic terminology a pleasure.

I highly recommend this book for any students (institutionalised or otherwise) of English language history as a delightfully written and entertaining companion to their coursework.

Rebecca Sally wrote: "I'm on Bill's side too. I happened to somehow just pluck this gem off the shelf of a local bookstore and found it followed (often to the very phrases and literary examples used by my lecturer in En..."

Aren't you at all worried you'll quote some ridiculous factoid that hasn't got a grain of truth to it and everyone will roll their eyes at you?

"English is the only language with a thesaurus" WHAT!? Ok, he's never learned another language, that is bad enough, but has he never even spoken to a non-native English speaker?

That is just one example of many ridiculous mistakes in just the very start of the book.

If you enjoyed it that's cool Sally but I would be very careful about taking a single word of it to heart.

Jacks Aradio You've got a beef with a reference to a book written in 1953. He's quoting Charlton Laird and the actual line quoted in the book says "Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist." Again I refer to my earlier comment, relax and enjoy the book for what it is, a casual trip through the history of the English language.

Rebecca The book is being published still and people are still reading it.

It is a casual trip through a load of nonsense and most of the references at the back are to magazines and newspapers.

Jacks Aradio I think you misunderstood me, the reference you made to "English is the only language with a thesaurus" is two things, one an inaccurate quote, and two something you attribute to Bryson, but he's quoting a book from 1953 for the actual reference which doesn't indicate that no other language has a thesaurus, but that most languages do not have a thesaurus. In your own admission you didn't even make it past the first chapter, so I'm still not convinced of your arguments. And finally the references in the back are mostly books, not magazines and newspapers as you state above. In any case, I wouldn't consider a reference to a newspaper or magazine article a bad thing, especially considering how much more relevant and recent the information in a magazine or newspaper can be over a book that took years to write and publish.

Anyway I'm not trying to convince you to read it, just I'm just trying to present the facts from the actual book that I'm holding in my hand. Please at least if you're going to criticize a book, use actual quotes from the book and form some true and relevant criticisms that are more well thought out.

Sally Wallz Also, Bryson refers to many historical texts (especially in the first few chapters) that either have no known original author (such as those dating back to Anglo-Saxon language), or that are widely known and accepted as underpinning documents to the particular field of study (ie english language history), like Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. It seems to me that the references at the back of the book are from Bryson's own research, and he uses these as "modern" evidence to reiterate or argue against popular thought on various topics.

Sally Wallz And no. I'm not worried about people rolling their eyes at me at all :) Thank you for your concern Rebecca.

Erwin fun and interesting.
when I started reading this one I thought the author was defending English as the "best language" but as I got into it, I came away with a different understanding.

also, you have to remember that in the 1990s there wasnt an easily accessible internet, the anglosphere was far more isolated than today, and the US and even UK appeared quite strong at the time. everything changes eventually.

I enjoyed it, and learned quite a bit about why English is so badly broken, especially in terms of spelling.

message 14: by Simon (new) - added it

Simon Whymark Just read first chapter and couldn't disagree more with this review. The reviewer somehow completely misses Bryson's sarcastic humour. Far from arrogantly lauding English, Bryson even states clearly that anyone would say their own language is best, before listing good and bad points about English. I'm glad I gave the book a chance!

Jacks Aradio Good for you!

message 16: by Rebecca (last edited Feb 13, 2015 11:09AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Rebecca This book is full of lies. Your enjoyment is irrelevant. This book is propagating LIES. Lies I tell you! All copies should be burned! Argh!

Read books by Deutscher and Pinker if you want to learn about language in an entertaining and easily accessible way. And burn Mother Tongue. Burn it!

Jacks Aradio Can you expand on your comment and give an actual (not taken out of context) lie that Mr Bryson is guilty of given the information available at the time of his writing? I do understand new data has come to light that may change some of the information in this book but this exactly a fact book it is leisure reading.

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