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Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language [Paperback]

Bill Bryson
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Oct 2009

'More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to...'

Only Bill Bryson could make a book about the English language so entertaining. With his boundless enthusiasm and restless eye for the absurd, this is his astonishing tour of English. From its mongrel origins to its status as the world's most-spoken tongue; its apparent simplicity to its deceptive complexity; its vibrant swearing to its uncertain spelling and pronunciation, Bryson covers all this as well as the many curious eccentricities that make it as maddening to learn as it is flexible to use.

Bill Bryson's classic Mother Tongue is a highly readable and hilarious tale of how English came to be the world's language.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; ISBN 0-140-14305-X edition (1 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141040084
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141040080
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 20 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Who would have thought that a book about the English language 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 rhapsodise about "the colourless 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Not only fascinating but extremely funny' - Angus Deayton 'The sort of linguistics I like, anecdotal, full of revelations, and with not one dull paragraph' - Ruth Rendell, Sunday Times 'A gold mine of language-anecdote, information, curiosity. A suprise on every page... enthralling' Observer 'Delightful, amusing and provoking... A joyful celebration of our wonderful language, which is packed with curiosities and enlightenment on every page' Sunday Express 'A delightful survey - though with its good humour, wealth of anecdote, and boyish enthusiasm, "romp" would be a better word.' - David Crystal

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bryson's individual story on English 16 Dec 2011
By RR Waller TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Bill Bryson is a journalist by profession and a writer of very humorous travel books in a style which is all his own. From my knowledge of his many books, he is highly-intelligent, erudite and, coupled with his journalist's training, he is able to turn his mind to many subjects, e.g. his book "The Short History of Nearly Everything" is excellent, full of detailed information about a wide range of differing disciplines.

I am sure he would not claim to be an expert on the English language in the David Crystal league and he would probably be the first to admit the errors in the book but, what it does reveal is divergent roots of our language and the ways in which it has developed; obviously researched well and skilfully crafted, Bryson obviously enjoyed writing it and his interest and pleasure in using language comes trough the words. For serious linguistic students looking for a reference text, this is probably not it but for anyone with a passing interest in and enjoyment of language, it will be fascinating - despite the inaccuracies picked out by various reviewers.

I may be wrong, but I think this book was a companion to the radio series of the same or a similar name. I have the cds and the programmes are very enjoyable with interviews with a wide and knowledgeable group of experts. Unfortunately, I have looked for the cds on Amazon without success.
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131 of 146 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Truth or Not? 29 Mar 2008
By Deman
Format:Paperback
I found, for the most part of reading, this book to be very entertaining and informative. I read a few other Bryson books in the past, about travelling etc... but as an English teacher, well TEFL teacher, I thought this would be a great book to use quotes from for anecdotes during my lessons.

The problem occurred near the start of chapter 14 (out of 16).

Quote:
"Some cultures don't swear at all..... The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feeling when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2.00 a.m., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa. It means 'in the restaurant'."

This is utter, for lack of a better word, hevosenpaska (literal translation "Horse S**t"). I have NEVER in my 10 years living in Finland heard anyone shout out RAVINTOLASSA, unless of course there were too many people in the restaurant and the guy was shouting into his mobile saying where he is. The Finns have quite a few swear words in their vocabulary that can be heard way too often.

So this led me to thinking, "if this is so way off track when it comes to Finland, what about the rest of the book when he writes about cultures I'm not familiar with?"

This has taken the shine off what I thought was an excellent piece of writing and that's why I'm giving it 2/5.

Sorry
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gloriously entertaining but factually suspect. 4 Feb 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
A treasure house of the facts of the history of English and its oddities, but the "facts" are sometimes suspect, eg we do not say gill for girl in South Africa and I'm told that ndlebezakho (not hlebeshako) in Xhosa (incidentally President Mandela's mother tongue; not XoXa) freely translates as darn your ears (not your mother's ears) and is a mild admonition such as to a naughty child and not "the most provocative possible remark".
I was comforted by the examples of incorrect grammar and usage quoted from leading authors' works on English, to which one can add examples from the book itself, eg Some idea of the bewilderments ... are indicated; forbidden from; They find particular pleasure in taking old Norman names and mashing them around until they became; Often the names we know places by is.

My rating is based on the book's entertainment value, which is only impaired by the uncertainty as to when one can rely on what is said and when not. But I caution against mistaking the book as a serious reference work despite the academic-seeming footnotes. The author himself makes no such disclaimer, at least in my edition (1990).
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not for everyone 16 April 2008
By Leeloo
Format:Paperback
I liked this book. It is written with Bryson's usual witty and engaging style. It is a book that is absolutely of the high standard any reader of Bryson's previous books will have come to expect.

Having said that, this book is certainly not for everyone, even if you have thoroughly enjoyed many of Bryson's previous offerings. I have an amateur's interest in language and this book provided me with an informative introduction to its history and quirky nature. If you are not interested in the subject I think you will probably find this book very dull indeed.

There are some downsides to bare in mind, even for those with an avid interest. Firstly, it contains lots of list of words in the text which can be tedious, to the point where I was skipping whole paragraphs to get to the point. The second is that this book was written nearly 20 years ago and those with a background knowledge will realise that it is out of date in parts. This need not be a bad thing, as it stimulated me to consider how the English language has evolved in my lifetime.
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62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bryson makes me proud to be an Anglophone 3 Aug 2001
Format:Paperback
While browsing in the linguistics section at a London bookshop, I came across this book. I had never heard of Bryson before, but the description on the back sounded so interesting, I bought it. Having just finished the book, I can only wonder how I managed to miss this guy's stuff all my life. This book is a fascinating journey through the history of English, the varieties of English in the world, spelling, pronunciation, and more. Bryson's style is fresh, funny, irreverent, and absorbing. I feel like I have found someone who loves nuance in language as much as I do, and is spot on when it comes to examining exactly the subtleties that get me fired up. Highly recommended to Anglophones interested in learning more about the language we call our own.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating.
Why wasn't I made aware of this at School ? Essential reading for us all, young and old - no doubt.
Published 5 days ago by Alan John Knight
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
I have now read this book several times. The depth of research is amazing - and it is very readable.
Published 2 months ago by J. Woolvett
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating book
This book will amaze you.

I've had to lend it to so many friends.

If you enjoy the English language and like to find out why we say things the way we do, then... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Joanne Hinton
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a great book!
I loved this book! It's interesting and it's good fun at the same time. I bought it for other people too.
Published 3 months ago by mooch
3.0 out of 5 stars Pssst ...
...if any reader meets Bill Bryson, would he or she please mention to him that German is spoken in Belgium (see page 3). It's true - I've lived and worked in that country.
Published 4 months ago by Atir
5.0 out of 5 stars mum's the word
Interesting, informative and surpisingly entertaining without being pedantic. I couldn't put it down - it should be on every English student's reading list
Published 5 months ago by Elly Robinson
4.0 out of 5 stars Shift
Entertaining pile of trivia about the English language (as well as many other languages). For example, "the military vehicle the tank got its name because during its secretive... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Natasha Holme
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fun Read
Overall, this book is a fun read. Sometimes, it gets a bit tedious and covers the usual ground in providing examples. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Gary Brackett
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and informative
This is a very informative, well-written and easily accessible book. It hooks you in with interesting facts and anecdotes and maintains your interest the whole way through.
Published 6 months ago by Martin Quinn
5.0 out of 5 stars bill bryson
another brilliant book from Bill Bryson - still reading it but very interesting. He doesn't fail to deliver every time!
Published 6 months ago by J. Hanson
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