Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way

A friend lent me a copy of Mother Tongue when I mentioned that I liked Bill Bryson. I made time for it, despite it not even resting any time on the TBR shelf, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The whole time I was reading this book I wondered how one individual could possibly write this book--it is incredibly dense with examples of English words and phrases, their etymology, and their usage. Interesting as the book was, I felt like the information was literally passing through me with no hope that I could actually retain much of it (in one ear and out the other, so to speak), but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of this word-wallow one bit.

Bryson spends most of the first part of the book discussing how languages and pronunciation develop and evolve over time. It is chockful of interesting bits such as this:

The broad a of New England, for instance, may arise from the fact that the first pilgrims were from the old Anglican strongholds of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex, while the pronounced r of the mid-Atlantic states could be a lingering consequence of the Saxon domination of the Midlands and North. p. 47

While the book as a whole was vastly interesting, by far the best chapters were those at the end that were devoted to names, swearing, and wordplay. With regards to names, Bryson covers a bit of the same ground he covered in Notes from a Small Island with regards to the English penchant for colorful, quirky place and people names. As he says, "A glance through the British edition of Who's Who throws up a roll call that sounds disarmingly like the characters in a P.G. Wodehouse novel..." His breezy style always makes me smile and nod, and I do have a weakness for names like Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

The chapter on swearing was truly educational for this devout reader of Victorian novels.

Finally, the chapter on wordplay had me interrupting my husband's own reading to listen to the interesting bits and pieces that Bryson kept on hammering me with. For example, did you know that "...the crossword is the most popular sedentary recreation, occupying thirty million Americans for part of every day." That fact alone makes me feel better about my fellow Americans than I have felt in awhile!

To close this post, I will share the single most astounding thing I learned in this book...the highest Scrabble score, "according to Alan Richter, a former British champion [of Scrabble?] writing in The Atlantic in 1987, was 3,881 points. It included the word psychoanalyzing, which alone was worth 1,539 points."

Off to find the Scrabble board...I have time off from work over the next couple of weeks, and I have some practicing to do!


  1. Thanks for this review! I am a Bryson fan but haven't read this yet. I like the facts about how the different US accents may have evolved.

  2. I totally LOVED this book when I read it years ago. My favourite chapter was on swearing. I couldn't remember the title or author though. I must have read the British edition entitled: Mother Tongue: The English Language.
    Thanks for this review!

  3. I've read most of Bryson's other books and I like his writing style - this book sounds similar to Made in America, which my partner bought several years ago, but I haven't got round to reading yet.