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Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language Paperback – 1 Oct 2009


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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; ISBN 0-140-14305-X edition (1 Oct 2009)
  • Language: French
  • ISBN-10: 0141040084
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141040080
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,557 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

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

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

133 of 150 people found the following review helpful By Deman on 29 Mar 2008
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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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 4 Feb 1998
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 By Leeloo on 16 April 2008
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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 30 Oct 1998
Format: Paperback
Tell your humor editor there's nothing funny about Welsh (lucky she's 3,000 miles away). This is a great overview of the English language and how it has developed over the centuries and in so many countries both as a first and a second language. Two minor quibbles: the author doesn't make clear that Welsh is a phonetic language, i.e. it's pronounced as spelt; he got a little baffled by English pubnames, e.g. "The First and Last" isn't a baffling name - it describes a pub on the outskirts of a town, so it's the first one you see when arriving and the last you see when leaving; and similarly "The Tumbledown Dick" is a reference to the overthrow of Richard Cromwell (what did you think it meant?) I recommend this book to everyone.
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62 of 72 people found the following review helpful By W. Doyle on 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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By RR Waller TOP 500 REVIEWER on 16 Dec 2011
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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