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Mother Tongue: The English Language

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How did English, 'treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants' become the undisputed global language? How did words like shampoo, sofa and rowdy (and others drawn from over fifty languages) find their way into our dictionary? In this revealing and often hilarious book, Bill Bryson examines the mother tongue and explores the countless varieties of English and the perils of marketing brands with names like Pschitt and Super Piss. With entertaining sections on the oddities of swearing and spelling, spoonerisms and Scrabble, and a consideration of what we mean by 'good English', Mother Tongue is one of the most stimulating books yet written on this endlessly engrossing subject.

270 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

Bill Bryson

94 books18.9k followers
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, Bill Bryson's hilarious first travel book, he chronicled a trip in his mother's Chevy around small town America. It was followed by Neither Here Nor There, an account of his first trip around Europe. Other travel books include the massive bestseller Notes From a Small Island, which won the 2003 World Book Day National Poll to find the book which best represented modern England, followed by A Walk in the Woods (in which Stephen Katz, his travel companion from Neither Here Nor There, made a welcome reappearance), Notes From a Big Country and Down Under.

Bill Bryson has also written several highly praised books on the English language, including Mother Tongue and Made in America. In his last book, he turned his attention to science. A Short History of Nearly Everything was lauded with critical acclaim, and became a huge bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, before going on to win the Aventis Prize for Science Books and the Descartes Science Communication Prize. His next book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a memoir of growing up in 1950s America, featuring another appearance from his old friend Stephen Katz. October 8 sees the publication of A Really Short History of Nearly Everything.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,081 reviews
Profile Image for Ceci.
37 reviews65 followers
June 3, 2008
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 most colourful collection of swearwords. Someone pulled old Bill's leg, and did it properly too. That casts doubt on all he has written, really. And nobody says "ravintolassa" unless they do in fact mean "in the restaurant."
Profile Image for Cassidy.
43 reviews6 followers
April 10, 2011
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", and Welsh pronunciations "rarely bear much relation to their spellings." He then spouts off with a series of jokes that are so ethnocentric and condescending that, if you took them at face value, you couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor backward speakers of silly old Welsh.

The problem is, he's completely wrong. I happened to study the phonology and orthography of Welsh for about a week in that freshman linguistics class (I know, that makes me a big authority, right?) but in that week I learned something Bryson apparently never bothered to look up: Welsh orthography is remarkably regular, about as regular as Spanish. It's not at all difficult if you bother to learn the rules, which are far simpler than those of English. (The fact that I learned them in one week, and remember them decades later, should be some indication of how easy they are.) The phoneme represented by the double-l is called a lateral fricative, and yes, it's hard to pronounce if you don't speak Welsh, but that does not mean it's sometimes pronounced "kl" and other times "thl" as Bryson suggests. It is always pronounced just like it's spelled. But Bryson's Anglo-American tin ear failed to pick that up, and he took his ignorance and turned it into a cheap joke at another culture's expense.

Knowing that he got Welsh so wrong made me doubt all of the rest of the information in the book. And that's a real shame, because it covers such fascinating topics, and it's so very entertainingly written. But it's hard to enjoy Bryson's jokes when you have this nagging suspicion that he's bending the truth for the sake of a snappy punchline.
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
2,862 reviews10.5k followers
June 29, 2015
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 in fine form, cracking wise and still being informative at every opportunity. He didn't get much in the way of interesting material to work with in this case.

The book was not without its moments, however. I did enjoy the chapter on swearing, as well as numerous tidbits, or titbits, as they were called in a less prudish era, that peppered the other chapters. Too bad the gems were scarce and some of the reading resembled the back-breaking labor involved in mining.

While I found the book informative and mildly amusing, at the end of the day, it's still a book about the history of words. Even one of the funnier travel writers alive can't make chicken salad from chicken feathers in this case. 2.5 out of 5.
Profile Image for Punk.
1,495 reviews236 followers
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November 30, 2021
November 2021: Went ahead and removed my 4 star rating for this book, which I read and reviewed in 2006. It has since been pointed out, repeatedly, that Bryson is wrong in a staggering number of places in this book, and as I went on to read more of his work, I also realized exactly how racist he is. I don't read or recommend his books anymore.

Here's my original review from 2006, preserved as an artifact of how I was wrong:

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 you couldn't imagine downloading a British Doctor Who or an American Stargate Atlantis to your iPod. We live in a new world! Unfortunately it's also a world where the Harry Potter books are "translated" for American readers, lest we be too confused by the lingo: "What's this? Harry's eating a biscuit? And wearing a jumper? While battling Fizzolian Snargletoothed Whatsits?! This book is impenetrable!" JK Rowling aside, with communication technology becoming smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, I think we'll still be able to communicate two hundred years down the line. Bryson eventually disagrees with Burchfield for many of the same reasons, though he was unable to cite the internet as a factor.

In that way, this book is showing its age -- the chapter on online language use is, of course, conspicuously absent -- but it's got the history part down. Bryson spends most of his time looking at how we got where we are today. Where English came from, how it got to England, where it went from there. With its in-text references, footnotes, extensive bibliography and index, this book looks almost academic, but Bryson, an American living in England, handles it all with a cheerfully low-key sense of humor -- almost as if Terry Pratchett had turned his eye to grammar -- and even a refreshingly open approach to the word fuck in the chapter on swearing.

My one complaint is that, despite being loosely hung on British and American history, for the most part the book lacks a greater structure and ends up reading like a series of interesting facts. But, hell, they got my attention, and, as it happened, the attention of everyone around me: "Hey! Did you know the Romans had no word for grey?" Since English, as this book proves, is a big crazy mess, I guess Bryson can be excused for not being able to wrangle its history into a more pleasing order. Lack of structure aside, I really enjoyed reading this and will be reading more books by Bryson in the future.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,238 reviews2,207 followers
August 27, 2018
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 is the mother."

I replied that in that case, Malayalam is my mother, and both Hindi and English are nannies. And I just happened to prefer my English nanny over my native one. She had no answer to that!

Well, I am glad I stuck to English over Hindi, because this is one crazy nanny - totally idiosyncratic and eccentric, just like me. And to tell you how eccentric, who better than Bill Bryson?

If you approach this book hoping for a scholarly analysis of the English language, you are going to be sorely disappointed. For that don't come to old Bill. What he does is to throw out titbits (or tidbits in the US, as they the consider the former spelling risque - so Bryson tells me) of information, some useful, some useless, some bizarre: but all fascinating. One thing you can be sure of - you won't be disappointed.

This book is a linguistic, historical and geographical romp through English wherein Bill tackles such varied subjects as

1. The origin and spread of English
2. The evolution of words
3. Pronunciation
4. Spelling
5. The varieties of English, both inside the UK and outside
6. Dictionaries and their producers
7. Where names come from
8. Profanity
9. Wordplay

... and much more.

There is not a single boring sentence. You are guaranteed to be snickering throughout.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,366 reviews786 followers
September 13, 2018
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 of snow—though curiously no word for just plain snow. To them there is crunchy snow, soft snow, fresh snow, and old snow, but no word that just means snow.”

There’s a wealth of articles about this half-truth (I’m being generous). Here’s one http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca...

So how many grains of salt would I need to swallow the declaration that immediately followed? An unhealthy amount, I’m sure.

“The Italians, as we might expect, have over 500 names for different types of macaroni.”

He goes on to say these include “spaghetti and vermicelli.” He obviously means types of pasta.

Then he got into some languages I have a smattering of myself – French and German—and I began questioning. Some of it just sounded wrong, like the quote from an article that says most speakers of other languages aren’t aware there is such a thing as a thesaurus.

At this point, I decided I’d read some reviews to see if anyone who knows more than I do felt the same way. Sadly, there are a lot. You can check the low-rating reviews on Amazon that actually discuss the many factual errors.

I stopped reading, thinking I might accidentally absorb some of the "facts" and perpetuate them myself!

How disappointing. One star for the writing.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
117 reviews32 followers
October 16, 2012
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 have words with dozens of meanings (Except maybe Esperanto?). Furthermore there is no preposition in any language that cannot be translated into at least three or four prepositions in English, nor are there any English prepositions that don't have numerous translations in the other language. That's just how prepositions are! They don't translate!

The first chapter of this book has so many mistakes that I couldn't finish it. Almost every sentence has a mistake.
It is a collage of newspaper clippings. If you read the credits at the back you'll see that he only consulted newspapers and magazines and did no real research.
I can't go through all the mistakes, I really don't have the time, there are just too many. If it continues in this way then this is a work of complete and utter fiction.

I loved "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and now I am frightened that if I knew anything whatsoever about "Everything" I would have found that that book too was filled with amusing but completely made up factoids.
Profile Image for Julie (jjmachshev).
1,069 reviews281 followers
July 16, 2008
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 Mother Tongue" and takes us all on a fabulous journey through and overview of the intricacies of human language. You will laugh, smile, and learn a few things while you're at it!!!
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,114 reviews1,978 followers
May 17, 2017
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 fun and it is absolutely that, lots and lots of fun.
Having said that there are lots of interesting bits which really make you think about what you say and write every day, things that you may have never actually noticed. Lots and lots of 'aha' moments:) I enjoyed it very much.
Profile Image for Ceridwen.
20 reviews
January 13, 2009
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 most of your sources are a decade or two out of date, even for 1991. Get your facts straight and publish a revised edition is the best advice I can give you.
And as for my fellow readers: buy David Crystal's The Stories of English instead. Far better researched and just as entertaining.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,715 reviews1,228 followers
November 29, 2021
Where to begin? The Mother Tongue is a book which is not merely not good: it is maddeningly terrible, riddled with factual errors and utterly lacking in self-awareness. I don’t expect Bill Bryson to be clairvoyant, of course, and a book written in 1991 about the history of language can be forgiven for having predicted neither the rise of the internet nor the scientific breakthroughs that proved that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. But even setting issues like that aside, there are so many mistakes here, both in Bryson’s discussion of the English language itself and in his characterisation of the other languages he uses as comparatives.

Bryson repeatedly shows that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about when it comes to the English language. Take this for instance:

“A rich vocabulary carries with it a concomitant danger of verbosity, as evidenced by our peculiar affection for redundant phrases, expressions that say the same thing twice: beck and call, law and order, assault and battery, null and void…”

Except that none of these are examples of redundancy? A beck is a gesture and a call is verbal; a law is a codified rule and order is a lack of chaos, and so on. What we’ve got is a use of related ideas in order to create a broader overlapping concept. He generally shows a confused understanding of a lot of grammatical concepts/parts of speech, and is inconsistent in his conception of the relationship of spelling to spoken language.

Then again, he seems to think that Pennsylvania Dutch is a form of pidgin English, so perhaps that’s unsurprising!

To focus on the languages I know best out of those he discusses—Irish, Hiberno-English, and French—is to make me sigh heavily. His discussion of Irish and Hiberno-English was full of mistakes and condescension. He claims that Irish people pronounce the word “girl” as “gull” (I said “girl” to myself in a variety of Irish accents as I made a cup of tea just now to see if I could figure out where he was coming from, and nope), says that the phonetic rendering of “Taoiseach” in English is “tea-sack”, and more. Has Bryson ever spoken to an Irish person?

He repeatedly dings Irish (and even more so Welsh) for having spellings that are bizarre, strange, overly convoluted, etc, when what he should mean is that the Irish language attaches sound values to the Latin alphabet that are different from those used by English.

(And the clue is right there in the term ‘Latin alphabet’ that it wasn’t originally crafted for use by English speakers, either.)

(Also, Irish and Welsh orthography is far more internally consistent than is that of English—but Bryson only allows the features of English to be virtues.)

The final bit of assholery is that he excuses British imperialism in Ireland and its policies both direct and indirect aimed at the destruction of the Irish language on the basis that, well, it’s given him more English-language literature to enjoy.

“We naturally lament the decline of these languages, but it's not an altogether undiluted tragedy. Consider the loss to English literature, if Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Yeats, Wilde, and Ireland's other literary masters have written in what inescapably a fringe language, their work will be as little known to us as those poets in Iceland or Norway, and that would be a tragedy indeed. No country has given the word incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland, and for that reason alone we might be excused to a small, "selfish" celebration that English was the language of her greatest writers.”


Let me draw upon all of my Irishness here, Bill, to point out first the fact that translators exist; second, that Irish writers are not writing for you; and third, fuck you, you scuttering gobshite.

Bryson’s clearly lived in England long enough to have imbibed the British combativeness towards the French. He’s sneery enough towards the Académie Française to make me eyeroll even though I think the Académie is full of jackasses, and makes bizarre pronouncements about the French language that a quick look at the dictionary would have proved wrong. (The French don’t have the breadth of vocabulary to distinguish between “man” and “gentleman”, the way English speakers do, proclaims Bryson. “Homme” and “gentilhomme”? They can’t distinguish between “mind” and “brain”! Uh, “esprit” and “cerveau”?)

And then there’s the racism. His use of “we” oscillates throughout, from encompassing British people, to American people, to a kind of Anglo-American hybrid, but there’s always the underlying assumption that the English speaker who will pick this book up will be one of the two, and almost certainly white. He refers to Spanish as an “immigrant” language to the U.S. in comparison to English, when there have been Spanish speakers in what is now the U.S. for longer than there have been English speakers, I’m pretty sure. Then there’s a strong undercurrent throughout of racialising language, making it reflect something both innate and straight-jacketing about those who speak non-English languages—“Orientals”, for example, are “inscrutable” who just can’t do honest business like those straight-talkin’ Anglo-Saxons. Then there’s absolute bullshit like this discussion of Australia:

“When the first inhabitants of the continent arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 they found a world teeming with flora, fauna, and geographical features such as they had never seen. “It is probably not too much to say,” wrote Otto Jespersen, “that there never was an instance in history when so many new names were needed.” Among the new words the Australians devised, many of them borrowed from the aborigines, were…”


That’s some magic trick, to have a land which is both entirely uninhabited when the white folks show up but which also has indigenous people living there to just offer up words for colonisers to “borrow”!

Awful. Awful. I’m now retrospectively mad, five years later, that I once attended a talk by this man. Avoid.

The audiobook narrator was also bad. Not only did he clearly do little by way of preparatory work for discussion of the non-English words (I think I replayed his attempt at the Irish word “geimhreadh” 3 or 4 times because it was that bizarre), but also did things like repeatedly pronounce “short-lived” with the same I in “lived” as in “live music.”
Profile Image for Diane.
1,079 reviews2,607 followers
January 5, 2019
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 delightfully interesting collection of essays. In this book, he discusses the history of the English language, but also the history of languages in general, the history of dictionaries, and many of the odd pronunciations and spellings that are so peculiar to English.

Knowing that "The Mother Tongue" was published in 1990, I had fun imagining what additions Bryson would have added to the text today, knowing how many new words have been adopted since the Internet took over our world. Overall, this was a pleasant read and is a nice complement to other books that have been written about the English language. Recommended.

Opening Passage
"More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say that the results are sometimes mixed. Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: 'The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.' Or this warning to 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.' Or these instructions gracing a packet of convenience food from Italy: 'Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in a only couch.' Clearly the writer of that message was not about to let a little ignorance of English stand in the way of a good meal. In fact, it would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that even with the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm — a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were."
Profile Image for Aleksi.
10 reviews2 followers
May 23, 2013
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 the lingua franca of the modern world come off haphazard at best. Bryson's love for his native English is clear enough; so is his painfully obvious lack of knowledge of any other languages. I did not care to keep count of the times he falsely asserts some feature in English cannot be found in any other language or blatantly moves the goalposts to prove how infinitely richer English is compared to anything.

For all the little anecdotes and copious bits of trivia it contains, I really want to like the book more than I do. Unfortunately once it becomes clear that many of these factoids won't stand up to closer scrutiny -- Bryson doesn't even blink as he repeats the age-old and very disputed claim that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow -- it becomes hard to believe anything the book claims.

The most baffling and outrageous claim of all is the one that strikes closest to home. Bryson has the audacity to suggest we Finns have no native swear words and use the phrase "in the restaurant" as a curse instead. Perkele, I say.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
January 4, 2008
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 they were just that bit young, and then listened to the talking book recently. If you haven't had the pleasure of this book yet, you should think about it.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,009 reviews104 followers
February 15, 2021
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 generally and usually found Bryson’s 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 English language both unacademic and yes, profoundly bigoted and stereotyping (and as such of course absolutely devoid of any kind of linguistic acumen and actual bona fide language based knowledge). And albeit granted that English is at present a so-called and even aptly labelled world language, the reasons why English is such, the reasons why English is so profoundly popular and globally strong at present are NOT (at least in in my humble opinion) due to any type of linguistic superiority, they are primarily and simply cultural and historic in nature and also have much to do with economics and not with English being in any manner a better and superior language linguistically speaking than French, German, Chinese, Russian and so on and so on.

And quite frankly, Mr. Bryson (and if you are perhaps offended by this, sorry, but I really and truly care not), your considerations about English and that you somehow think and assume the language is somehow better, is supposedly more advanced and of higher quality than other languages, this attitude truly makes me as a person of German background cringe profoundly, as it so strongly and uncomfortably does tend to remind me of the type of rhetoric that was used in the Third Reich by Adolf Hitler and his ilk to claim and attempt to demonstrate that German (that the Germanic languages) were supposedly both linguistically and genetically superior and more advanced than other language groups and families. However, languages are simply languages and in my opinion (and actually in the opinion of many if not most academically trained linguists worth considering) NO language is thus in any manner and in any way superior and those who attempt to claim this (especially if they are categorical and unilateral in and with their philosophies) are at best profoundly naive and at worst downright and frighteningly dangerous and full of propaganda. One star (and really, with The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, I actually almost wish I could give less than one star, and I have since reading or should I say since attempting to peruse this book actively shied away from trying any more offerings from Bill Bryson's pen, his seeming general popularity notwithstanding, especially and in particular since many of the "facts" the author has cited to cement his claims that English as a language is supposedly somehow superior to and of better and more lasting quality than other world languages are academically wrong anyhow, are not the truth or only partially the truth, and for a non-fiction linguistic tome, this just is not in any way even remotely acceptable).
Profile Image for Robert.
816 reviews44 followers
June 13, 2009
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 the time I write, for example. The political position has moved on, too.

2. Errors and inconsistencies. Some statements are just plain wrong. At one point Bryson says that the Irish Prime Minister's title sounds like "tea-sack" when rendered into phonetic English spelling. This is just incoorect; it is more like "tea-shock" even "tea-shop" if one was not listening attentively. Bryson says that the six Celtic languages arose from one predecessor called Celtic. Every other source I've read uses the term Brythonic for this extinct predecessor. It's possible that philologists have changed their terminology and don't use the term "Brythonic" any more (just as they don't call themselves philologists anymore) but even if that is so, later Bryson suggests that Welsh is a Gaelic language, which no authority is going to agree with.

As far as inconsistencies go, two stick with me: First Bryson tacitly identifies himself with Britain in the early part of the book, then later on as American...perhaps not surprising considering his Pond hoping tendencies. The second is worse; in the chapter on American accents and dialects he starts by agreeing that the USA shows less regional variation than britain and ends suggesting that there is, in fact, one dialect per person....

The effect of these two problems is to, one way or another, call into question the validity of just about everything expressed as a statement of fact, unless one already knows of an independent authority who agrees. This is most unfortunate, as the topic is fascinating and the writing is witty, though sometimes angry; English is also emotive!
Profile Image for Emma.
2,385 reviews810 followers
May 3, 2019
Surprisingly, I didn’t find this as engaging as his other books.
Profile Image for fleurette.
1,304 reviews107 followers
August 28, 2019
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 pretty well, I can read books in English without too much difficulty. Which does not change the fact that there are a lot of words that I do not know (and I'm fully aware of that). I am also not particularly sensitive to differences in pronunciation between British and American English. I mean, I'm aware of these differences (I am usually able to recognize an American and a British when I hear them), but I do not think I can pronounce the word first according to one and then according to the other pronunciation. I read this book in English and I must admit that although it is very interesting, as a non-English speaker, I was not able to fully appreciate it and understand it.

On the other hand, as a foreigner who had to learn English (and I’m native in non-Roman language), Bryson's insight in this area was particularly interesting and accurate for me. Especially when it comes to intricate English pronunciation. So a big plus for that.

Another issue, Bryson wrote his book in the late 1980s. The world has changed a lot since then. First of all, we have internet, which, at least in my opinion, makes British and American English even closer to each other and more similar. That is why the book seemed to be slightly outdated at times. I would love to read its modernized version.

The above list of imperfections does not mean that I did not like the book. Just like always, it's easier for me to specify what I was not delighted with than what I like. And I must admit that this is a very good book. However, I think that it is directed primarily to English native speakers, because they will be able to capture and better understand all the issues that the author raises.

Anyway, this is definitely not my last book by Bill Bryson. I can not wait to read another of his books. This time may be travel related.
Profile Image for Peter Macinnis.
Author 62 books61 followers
March 20, 2009
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 name of the Australian Labor Party, which adopted that spelling in the 19th century.

Bomboras are in the sea, not in rivers, a didgeridoo is not a form of trumpet, and outback is not an Aboriginal word (though bombora is), and we don't normally say "technicolour yawn": it was a joke put forward by Barry Humphries, not common usage.

I could go on and demolish his assertions about the Australian accents (he seems to think that any one of us speaks one, only) and if somebody is going to be arch about other people's proofing, page 139, the first page of chapter 10 needs to be looked at HARD.

I like the book, I just didn't appreciate the superior tone of somebody who is, like the rest of us, inclined to slip from time to time.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,111 reviews1,104 followers
May 31, 2021
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 two of his works previously and he never disappoints in making me chuckled or even roaring with laughter. True, there was a stultifying effect of him becoming too enthusiastic with his many, many examples, when he already made his points. That's my biggest gripe from reading this novel.

Nevertheless, the book itself is a bundle of joy of finding invariably humorous take on how word changed - even corrupted - over the course of time. It is amusing to know people made mistakes and those mistakes held on until today.

It made me wonder, though, since English is very much a dynamic language co-created together by the whole world depending on the generation, how much it will change in the next 100 years? We know that the Oxford Dictionary added "twerk", "derp" and "selfie" back in 2013 (which caused quite a bit of uproar), and in June 2017 alone, there are at least 100 new words. With the growing invasion of foreign and urbandictionary.com words, would English become the One True Lingua Franca?

As for Indonesia, English speakers should feel more at home here (at least in the urban areas) in the next decade or more, with all these millennials/gen-zs at the malls talking rather fluent English for their daily conversation. English book fairs are always loaded with people (and bloody, thieving online shops). I just hope the rest of the country can keep up with developing their skill. But I also hope that these fluent young speakers do not forget their own language.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
186 reviews3 followers
July 19, 2012
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 with situations of language contact. I think what bothers me most is the very thinly veiled "linguo"centrism that turns it from a piece of enthusiastic writing about the English language into a poorly-argued case for why English is better than every other language on the planet. As a native English speaker who spends every day contemplating and studying other languages, I can't disagree strongly enough with a message like that.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
625 reviews82 followers
December 15, 2020
The Mother Tongue is somewhat dated. I did not realize it was published in 1990 until hearing "Soviet Union" mentioned in the present tense. His view about machine translation is way out-of-date. He talks about a giant Chinese keyboard, which in fact never caught on. The Wubi method, invented in 1986, encodes Chinese characters by the five shapes of strokes and converts them to alphabetic characters on a generic keyboard. It gained popularity before being replaced by the Intelligent Pinyin method, which facilitates the standard phonetic representation of Chinese characters. Of course, Bill Bryson couldn't have foreseen how the Internet would change English (it would be interesting to know).

He certainly loves English. On the dying of Irish (as a language), he says: "we naturally lament the decline of these languages, but it's not an altogether undiluted tragedy. Consider the loss to English literature, if Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Yeats, Wilde, and Ireland's other literary masters have written in what inescapably a fringe language, their work will be as little known to us as those poets in Iceland or Norway, and that would be a tragedy indeed. No country has given the word incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland, and for that reason alone we might be excused to a small, "selfish" celebration that English was the language of her greatest writers." This is a hindsight bias.

Nevertheless, it's a fun read. I've learned a lot. Maoris of New Zealand have 35 words for dung. The Arabs have 6000 words for camels and camel equipment. The aborigines of Tasmania have a word for every type of trees but no word for the concept of tree. The word "nice" meant "stupid and foolish" in 1290. In the next 700 years, its meaning has changed so many times that it is impossible to tell what sense Jane Austen intended when she wrote to a friend: "You scold me so much in a nice long letter which I have received from you." The differences between American English and British English make me laugh! The history of swear words is fascinating. "Bloody" was worse than the F-word? And those Victorian sensibilities! Who knew the biggest contribution of American English to the language was actually "OK"!

I agree that the many native English speakers don't bother to learn a second language.

After reading this book, I decide to be less harsh on my own accent.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,808 reviews403 followers
January 9, 2023
This was quite a fascinating and entertaining book, up until the point where Bill Bryson claims that Finns don't swear. That when they stub their toes, they say "ravintolassa" (in the the restaurant). Right. I've never heard that expression, but I've sure heard a whole plethora of other fascinating swear words depicting all manner of hell, damnation, and body parts. After all, "perkele, saatana, vittu" are the first three words most foreigners learn and particularly the last one (female body part) is sprinkled into conversation as filler, much like the German word "aber". So that's when the whole book fell apart for me, because if he couldn't get this part right, what other things might he have been wrong about? Earlier I had thought it fascinating that Lithuanian is one of the oldest European languages. I doubt it now.

The book is entertaining and goes a long way to explain how English is spoken in so many parts of the world, much more so than Portuguese, another colonial language. It delves into history, dialects, distribution - and the aforementioned swear words. One more thing: don't try this on audio like I did. I heard so many words spelled out that my ears are still smarting.
Profile Image for Bob.
1,778 reviews606 followers
May 6, 2015
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", something a fisherman ties, one of the results of a batter hitting a baseball, or something no man wants open in public. As in so many of Bryson's books, he had me at the opening page as he explored some of the perplexities of our language that native speakers negotiate almost without thought. He had me in the first chapter as he proposed that part of the success of the language is the incredible richness of vocabulary (at the time of publication, the OED had 615,000 words), flexibility of usage, and relative simplicity, particularly in comparison to tonal languages of rendering the language in print.

He surveys the history of language, the world's language families and where English is situated in the Indo-European stream, and all the other offshoots, some which are no longer living languages. He recounts the triumph of Anglo-Saxon language over Celtic (even though many of England's place names preserve their Celtic roots), the impact of the Norman invasion (of 10,000 words, approximately 3/4ths are still in use including much of the language of nobility (duke, baron prince) and much language of jurisprudence (justice, jury, prison among others). He explores the different ways words are created, sometimes by doing nothing! His discussion of pronunciation and particularly the shifts in vowel sounds was fascinating, For example house was once pronounced hoose. You weren't born in a barn but barn in a born.

Then there is the matter of spelling and the role of printing and dictionaries in bring a greater if not complete uniformity to spelling--is it ax or axe, judgment or judgement (it is fascinating that the spell check in this word processor highlighted the latter of these two, and yet both are accepted with the shortened forms preferred). Of course so much of this discussion is the concern of some to promote the good and proper use of the language, and yet what is fascinating is the shifting ideas through history of what this is, according to Bryson. Similarly, we have the divergences between New World and Old and some wonder whether American English will become a distinct language.

Bryson's concluding chapters explore the origins of proper names, our propensity for wordplay, and the history of what are now considered vulgarities (although I think since Bryson wrote, what was censored in from public media in my youth is becoming more and more common). What is fascinating is that many of these were once in common parlance in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Equally fascinating are our various forms of wordplay, the ultimate of which must be the palindrome where a sentence says the same thing forwards and backwards (an example from the book: "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.")

Anyone who writes can understand the challenges of finding the right rather than the almost right word, and how easy it is to think you are saying one thing only to be understood by others as saying the opposite. I found Bryson's book a delightful diversion that better helped me understand both the joy of using this language and the frustrations of rendering the conceptions of mind into words that communicate.
Profile Image for Anne.
58 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2011
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 dishonorable mention and be out of work.

I give it one star because Bill Bryson writes well.



Review part I: Bringing science to the people, Bill Bryson style, is always funny and edcuational. However, this book is old, (it was written before the Wall came down, which is evident in the mentioning of the number of citizens of the Soviet Union who don't speak Russian) and a lot has happened in the lingustic field since then. So I'm not sure the information is always correct. Until I find out, I will simply enjoy the book as is :-)

One curious thing: Norwegians supposedly "talk about departing like an Englishman" (p7) Eh, really? Never heard of that. Googling it, I find only quotes from this book.

Update: Not sure I'll finish this book. I was worried it'd be outdated, but that's only part of the problem. There are so many inaccuracies, facts that are not facts at all and some Bryson attitude issues.
I've mentioned the Norwegian example above and other Goodreads reviews mentions that, according to this book, mordern Finnish has no swear words (!) and Bryson's understanding of (to him) foreign languages like Japanese and German leads to wrong or not quite accurate conclusions. Also quotes like "As of 1989, the Basque separatist organization ETA ... had committed 672 murders in the name of linguistic and cultural independence" (p35) is rather particular, to say the least.
His rant about funny Welsh spelling and pronounciation is silly. (p36) In some languages, like Spanish, spelling and pronounciation are almost the same, in other languages, like Danish and apparantly Welsh, they are not. Also, the pronounciation of a specific language is difficult or easy according to your own mother tongue. German to me is easy, Japanese is difficult. A book like this should acknowledge these things.
Profile Image for Nei.
66 reviews31 followers
July 18, 2013
I managed perhaps thirty pages of this and gave up. I hadn't read a Bryson book before; it's unlikely I shall ever attempt another.

Many of the 'facts' in the book sounded suspicious so I started looking them up elsewhere and found a great many to be wrong. I looked at the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon and found that many other people had found this too. Some people giving favourable reviews said that they weren't put off by it—it had been an entertaining read anyway.

I gave up; there's no point in learning a collection of made up 'facts', however interesting they seem.

The only good thing I can say about this book is that it fired in me a greater interest in the subject, for which I turned to more accurate books by people who actually know their subject. I also learnt to be more careful of what I read, and I steer well clear of Mr Bryson's works.
Profile Image for James Hartley.
Author 9 books126 followers
June 27, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Stuart.
701 reviews259 followers
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January 11, 2020
Mother Tongue: Essays on the Origins and Usage of English
My wife was lent this book by a British friend of ours, but I decided to read it as I've heard about Bill Bryson's popular travel books like Notes from a Small Island and book A Brief History of Everything, about his travels through England before moving back to the US after a long time in his adopted home. He's an interesting guy who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, became a popular travel writer, and was even Chancellor of prestigious Durham University in the UK. So he's very much a bicultural American-Brit who can see different aspects of both societies from the inside and outside, and also has a wide-ranging intellect and deft sense of humor.

Mother Tongue is a series of essays on the origins of human language, with plenty of interesting scientific insights, then to the messy origins of English amid the various waves of invasions of the original Celtic peoples of Britain by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, Scandinavians (Vikings), and so forth, to its growing status as a global language. I enjoyed this part of the book the most, learning a lot about the origins of the language that was especially useful now that I live in England myself. I also didn't know that Latin evolved into French, Spanish, and Italian among other languages, to my embarrassment. Given the many travels we've had through Europe in the past two years, a lot of the early origins of the Celtic peoples in Europe and the migrations of various peoples across the continent and to the British isles during the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages is really fascinating stuff.

The middle portion of the book gets very involved in examining the evolution of English spellings and pronunciations as it moved from Old English to Modern English, and the further hiving off of American English from British English. Some of this was really illuminating, but the parts discussing the minute details of spelling and grammatical shifts were slow-going unless you are truly a student of the language and I found somewhat less interesting.

The chapter on swearing was quite funny, there's plenty to learn there. And throughout the book Bryson's humor makes the subject matter interesting. However, though he does make regular references to other languages, the book is by its nature extremely English-centric so many of the statements about how unique English is are almost certainly inaccurate as he is not so authoritative a linguist so much as a very well-informed enthusiast.

The book's 1990 publication also betrays its age as it is hopelessly out of date when describing how absurdly impractical the computer keyboards are for Chinese and Japanese users and how that has hindered their economic development. Can't blame a book for being out of date, so it's actually somewhat amusing to see how things can change so much in just a few decades.

I'm looking forward to reading A Brief History of Everything next before moving onto his well-liked travel stories.
Profile Image for Negin.
591 reviews151 followers
November 8, 2015
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 internet age. I would simply love to see an updated version. All in all, this was a fun and informative read.

Having lived in Britain and the U.S., I have noticed the following for years and couldn’t agree more with Bill Bryson:
“No place in the English-speaking world is more breathtakingly replete with dialects than Great Britain. In America, people as far apart as New York State and Oregon speak with largely identical voices. According to some estimates almost two thirds of the American population, living on some 8o percent of the land area, speak with the same accent—a quite remarkable degree of homogeneity.
If we define dialect as a way of speaking that fixes a person geographically, then it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in England there are as many dialects as there are hills and valleys. Just in the six counties of northern England, an area about the size of Maine, there are seventeen separate pronunciations for the word house.”

I thought that this was interesting:
“Webster was responsible for the American aluminum in favor of the British aluminium. His choice has the fractional advantage of brevity, but defaults in terms of consistency. Aluminium at least follows the pattern set by other chemical elements— potassium, radium, and the like.”

The following had me chuckling:

“… the true story of an American lady, newly arrived in London, who opened her front door to find three burly men on the steps informing her that they were her dustmen. ‘Oh,’ she blurted, ‘but I do my own dusting.’

And this:
“In 1989, some 77 percent of all new college graduates had taken no foreign language courses.
There is evidence to suggest that some members of Congress aren’t fully sympathetic with the necessity for a commercial nation to be multilingual. As one congressman quite seriously told Dr. David Edwards, head of the Joint National Committee on Languages, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me,’ [Quoted in the Guardian, April 30, 1988].”
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