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The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  32,111 ratings  ·  2,459 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 ...more
Paperback, 270 pages
Published September 28th 1991 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 1990)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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 ·  32,111 ratings  ·  2,459 reviews


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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
...more
Ceci
Jan 24, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
...more
Dan Schwent
Jun 17, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2015, nf
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
...more
abby
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I gave this book 4 stars for an enjoyable reading experience. But, if I'm being honest, I'm not entirely sure how accurate it is. The idea of this being credible nonfiction came to a bit of screeching halt for me when Bryson described Pennsylvania Dutch as an English dialect. He seems to have confused the broken English many (older) Amish and Mennonite speak (expressions like "make open the door") with the separate language of Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a variant of German.

It was a fun book.
...more
Cassidy
Apr 09, 2011 rated it did not like it
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
...more
Nandakishore Varma
Ever since I learned to read, English has been my favourite language - I took to it like a duck takes to water (at least, I guess they take to it willingly, and that baby ducks are not paddled until their feathers fly by Mamma Duck to make them). This was the cause of the eternal chagrin of my mother who, being a staunch nationalist, wanted me to prefer Hindi over English. She recited to me a famous couplet in Malayalam, which said:

"Other languages are merely nannies;
For man, the native tongue
...more
Punk
Jun 23, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
PattyMacDotComma
Jun 27, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: nobody
1 (DNF)
I thought this would be fun. I love words and languages and have a passing interest in linguistics. I started this with enthusiasm and was enjoying his breezy style until it occurred to me that a lot of what he was saying seemed to be anecdotal. You know, limited or no research.

Then I thought, well, it was written more than 25 years ago, so things that sounded like old stories to me may have been new stories then – like this one:

“The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types
...more
Julie (jjmachshev)
May 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Rebecca
Oct 16, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Diane
Jan 04, 2019 rated it liked it
I'm a longtime fan of Bill Bryson, but I had never read this early nonfiction work of his and was delighted to see that my library had a copy of the audiobook.

"The Mother Tongue" has the expected rambling charm of a Bryson nonfiction work. When he becomes enamored on a topic (such as the history of our houses in "At Home" or the history of our universe in "A Short History of Nearly Everything") Bryson digs up all kinds of interesting facts and stories and anecdotes and puts it all together in a
...more
Phrynne
May 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 4000-books
I always enjoy a Bill Bryson book. I love his sense of humour and the way he can turn the driest subject into something entertaining. Of course that does mean you cannot believe a word of it since he is always looking for the most shocking or the most amusing way to present each topic. Why ruin a good joke with the truth?
So if you are looking for an erudite and trustworthy account of the development of the English language I am sure there are many very worthy tomes out there! This is just for
...more
Aleksi
May 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
...more
Ceridwen
Jan 13, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: i-own, non-fiction
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 ...more
Trevor
Jan 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
...more
fleurette
Jul 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The Mother Tongue

I found Bill Bryson about a month ago when I read hilarious In a Sunburned Country. I liked that one a lot and decided to try out his other book. And I liked this one too, but unfortunately not as much as In a Sunburned Country. And there are several reasons for that. Including the one that it can be at least partly my fault.

And that's what I will start with. I am not an English native speaker. I have never lived in any English-speaking country. I have been learning English at school. I manage
...more
Manybooks
I know and I do even realise that Bill Bryson is considered an entertaining author and that he also seems to be much loved and appreciated by many. However, I for one have found his general tone of narrational voice and the boastful, arrogant demeanour he constantly seems to present and yes indeed often downright spew in The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way extremely off-putting and really at best massively condescending, with his claims regarding the supposed superiority of the ...more
Olive
Jul 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
See my review on booktube: https://youtu.be/fGAGXfXO5uM
Emma
Mar 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Surprisingly, I didn’t find this as engaging as his other books.
Robert
Mar 30, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philology
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
Silvana
Jul 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Silvana by: KOMET
English is one crazy language. As a person who is not a native speaker, this book is very insightful in terms of how the most globalized language developed (and is still developing). It is similar with how history's made, there were wars, migrations, proliferation of mass media, the making of dictionaries, public figures making their own linguistic marks (and complete fools of themselves), class and regional divisions, and so on and so forth.

Bryson is a funny guy. I think I have read at least
...more
Peter Macinnis
Mar 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Bob
Apr 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
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
...more
Darcy Leech
Sep 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
As a language lover, The Mother Tongue is fun and informative. I read this for my college rhetoric class, and fell in love with the enjoyable read with knowledge worthy of an upper level college English class. Bryson's true gift is in making the nature of linguistics both understandable and relevant. The author has fun playing with words - I laughed out loud multiple times. The best chapter is the one on what is considered obscene language, not because it feels good to curse, but because it ...more
Stephanie
Jul 13, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
...more
James Hartley
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a good, concise, erudite, readable over-view of the history, present and future of the English language. Bryson is a funny man and a witty writer and this book ranges from the first recorded sentence in English - "This she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman" - to Cockney rhyming slang, though palindromes, anagrams and the politics of spelling. Recommended to anyone with any interest in our weird, wonderful, ever-evolving mother tongue.
Anne
Jan 24, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: notfinished
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
...more
Negin
Nov 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When it comes to Bill Bryson, I tend to prefer his travelogues. Although “The Mother Tongue” is not a travelogue, I enjoyed it greatly. It’s a fascinating and, as is usually the case with Bryson, entertaining account of evolution of the English language. I don’t consider myself a word or language nerd at all, yet I loved all the trivia, such as those that I’ve quoted below.
The only reason that I’m giving it 4 stars rather than 5 is that it’s a bit dated. It was written in 1990 before the
...more
Charity
Feb 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Michael
Jul 16, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michael by: Kim
Shelves: 1990s, non-fiction
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
...more
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William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS 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,
...more
“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.” 33 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.” 23 likes
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