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

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
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's review
Jun 23, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: 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 Published in 1990, this book is already a little out of date.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 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.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 1, 2006 – Finished Reading
June 23, 2007 – Shelved
June 23, 2007 – Shelved as: non-fiction

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Rebecca The biggest problem is the fact that something with so many made-up factoids is classified as "non-fiction"!

Punk What parts would you say were made up?

Rebecca Look at the references at the back. None of them are credible, it´s all newspapers and magazines. He´s has never studied languages or even learned a foreign language.

This review lists just some of the mistakes:


Punk Wow, it's really disappointing that Bryson made so many inaccurate statements and generalizations. I checked up on a few of them and he is indeed wrong about the origin of the word Korea and the location of Joachimsthal, for example. How unfortunate. Thanks for the link.

Rebecca You're welcome! There's actually a few more problem with the first chapter... which is the only part of the book I managed to get through. I would wager there is more in the rest of the book, no one can be an expert in everything (that's why you research carefully when you write a book like this!) so it'll be hard to find one person who spots every single mistake. If you read amazon reviews you'll see a lot of examples where "Oh this book is so good except I speak X and he was completely wrong about it". The person doesn't dream that he was wrong about all the other languages too!

I really wish he would rewrite it, he must have gotten many many letters about it by now!

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