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The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
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The Mother Tongue (original 1990; edition 1991)

by Bill Bryson

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5,214102855 (3.88)165
Member:JeffV
Title:The Mother Tongue
Authors:Bill Bryson
Info:Harper Perennial (1991), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Rating:****
Tags:Non-fiction, History, Linguistics

Work details

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson (1990)

  1. 30
    The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg (John_Vaughan)
  2. 10
    A History of the English Language by Albert C. Baugh (Mrs.Stansbury)
    Mrs.Stansbury: This is an academic version of 'Mother Tongue' this one covers about 85% of the same material but in much greater detail and depth. The maps and charts are fantastic.
  3. 11
    The Story of Language by Mario Pei (jsoos)
    jsoos: A more general treatment, not limited to English
  4. 00
    The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories by Merriam-Webster (VivienneR)
  5. 01
    Talk to the Hand : The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door) by Lynne Truss (mikeg2)
  6. 01
    The Cambridge encyclopedia of language by David Crystal (kevinashley)
    kevinashley: Crystal's work is more scholarly in tone but he's an equally accessible writer - and more comprehensive and accurate. If English, rather than language in general, is your particular interest you may find his books on English more interesting (I haven't read those.)… (more)
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» See also 165 mentions

English (99)  German (1)  Swedish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (102)
Showing 1-5 of 99 (next | show all)
Bryson is neither a linguist or a historian.

Neither am I, but I mention his lack of credentials because he makes many mistakes in those areas with utter confidence.

I would like to say that anything which Bryson claims without a specific citation should be considered unfounded rumor, but I'm not terribly confident that all of his citations are from sound sources. In fact, considering his misunderstanding of what I thought were common words I'm not certain that his citations from reliable sources would actually back him up.

The following example especially annoyed me:

"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, safe and sound, first and fore-most. . ."

Bryson is wrong that these terms are redundant. They each convey two related ideas in order to form a complete impression.

A beck is a gestural request (as in beckon) while a call is verbal. Law refers the formal codified rules of society while order describes the general state of organization and a lack of chaos. Assault means an attack (including an attempted or threatened attack), while battery clarifies that actual physical violence was initiated. When something is made null it loses all past efficacy (as in a nullified contract, whose terms are considered never to have been valid), while to void something removes all future efficacy (as a used coupon might be voided). Safe means not in danger, and sound means unharmed. First is a time-related term implying subsequent tasks, while foremost specifies importance and implies less important tasks.

Bryson actually continues with many more phrases incorrectly identified as redundant, but I will spare you the additional pedantry. My point is that Bryson often makes this sort of incorrect claim and expounds on it at length. He doesn't only make cursory mistakes, he makes fundamental errors and then draws conclusions from them.

The book is also, through no fault of its author, 23 years out-of-date. It was published in 1991 and right at the beginning it asserts that more than 300 million people in the world speak English. Estimates of the number of people who speak English in the world today range from 500 million to more than double that number. Later on the book asserts that 40 or 50 million people in India speak English. For comparison, according to Wikipedia there are over 125 million English speakers in India, 90 million in Pakistan, and 30 million in Bangladesh. All of the speculation about the ways that English might diverge into unintelligible regional variants seem ridiculous viewed through the lens of the internet.

On top of all that the book is generally unstructured, apart from the general themes of the chapters. It constantly ranges between historical anecdotes, discussions of grammatical rules, and observations about amusing names. While I enjoyed it, I find it impossible to recommend. ( )
1 vote wishanem | Jan 27, 2015 |
At times the sheer amount of trivia in the book gets overwhelming, and coming from me, that's saying something. However, quite enjoyable, if not delivering anything exactly new. ( )
  dknippling | Dec 21, 2014 |
I almost always enjoy Bryson's books and learn a little something to boot. This book is lots of fun for a word-lover like me. It has chapters on the history of English, pronunciation, names, swearing, spelling, and lots more. ( )
  glade1 | Sep 15, 2014 |
read in london/stratford while listening to those accents. lots of interesting info. ( )
  mahallett | Jun 25, 2014 |
I'm fairly certain that Bill Bryson can make anything interesting, so this was a good "first" foray into reading non-fiction from cover to cover. First, the good: Bryson's wit and point of view have yet to displease me, and his linguistic flourishes are deft. I found myself, however, disagreeing with some of his points and worrying about a lack of evidence on others. (Pronunciation was different because spelling was different? Really?) But all in all, I found some fairly interesting titbits (not a typo), and find myself wishing I had a better memory for random facts (and in this case, word etymologies). ( )
  reflexandresolve | Dec 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 99 (next | show all)
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More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.
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It appears that there is no canonical title, but two distinct titles. If the canoncial title field is left blank, LibraryThing will continue to use the democratic method for populating everyone’s ‘your books’ listing (and maybe elsewhere) with the most commonly used title on LibraryThing. On 20 Jan 2014 Bill Bryson’s home page showed two distinct editions, the UK edition and the US edition, with two distinct titles. It appears that the US edition was published first but not verified.

US edition - The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way – 1 June 1990 (??)

UK edition - Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language – 1 Oct 1990 (??)

A 1991 UK edition was titled Mother Tongue: The English Language
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0380715430, Paperback)

Who would have thought that a book about English would be so entertaining? Certainly not this grammar-allergic reviewer, but The Mother Tongue pulls it off admirably. Bill Bryson--a zealot--is the right man for the job. Who else could rhapsodize about "the colorless murmur of the schwa" with a straight face? It is his unflagging enthusiasm, seeping from between every sentence, that carries the book.

Bryson displays an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic, and this inevitably encourages a light tone; the more you know about a subject, the more absurd it becomes. No jokes are necessary, the facts do well enough by themselves, and Bryson supplies tens per page. As well as tossing off gems of fractured English (from a Japanese eraser: "This product will self-destruct in Mother Earth."), Bryson frequently takes time to compare the idiosyncratic tongue with other languages. Not only does this give a laugh (one word: Welsh), and always shed considerable light, it also makes the reader feel fortunate to speak English.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:05 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Provides a humorous history of the English language covering such topics as spelling, pronunciation, swearing, and wordplay.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 5 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141037466, 0141040084

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