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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gloriously entertaining but factually suspect.
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...
Published on 4 Feb 1998

versus
132 of 148 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Truth or Not?
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)...
Published on 29 Mar 2008 by Deman


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132 of 148 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Truth or Not?, 29 Mar 2008
This review is from: Mother Tongue: The English Language (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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39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gloriously entertaining but factually suspect., 4 Feb 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Mother Tongue (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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview of a world language for non-experts, 30 Oct 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Mother Tongue (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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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not for everyone, 16 April 2008
This review is from: Mother Tongue: The English Language (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
By 
W. Doyle (USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Mother Tongue: The English Language (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
4.0 out of 5 stars Bryson's individual story on English, 16 Dec 2011
By 
RR Waller "ISeneca" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Delight, 3 April 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Mother Tongue: The English Language (Paperback)
This is the first of Bill Bryson's books that I have read and it was a delight. In a completely non-academic way the author traces the origins of the English language and its development up to the present.
Mr Bryson is always amusing but does not fall into the trap of levity - most of the humour is inherent in the situations which he describes. The book contains much serious work presented in a light-hearted way supported by numerous anecdotes. Not only is the mainstream of the language and its grammatical rules considered but also pidgin, dialects and private languages. Slang and swear words also come under scrutiny.
A constant pleasure.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Packed with facts not only fascinating but also FUNNY, 20 Feb 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Mother Tongue: The English Language (Paperback)
This book is perfect for anybody who has ever noticed or wondered about how any of the little quirks of our language and spelling came about.
A vast array of facts are uncovered. One of my favourites: the rules of English that we all learned at school were more or less born of the whim of one Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century. Bryson points out how unfounded are the perennial favourites such as not ending a sentence with a preposition and not splitting an infinitive (I never knew it is not even technically POSSIBLE to split an infinitive).
I was gripped by this book in a way I never have been by another non-fiction book, and will never again sneer at the American "gotten" as a hideous mangling of English since discovering it is in fact an archaic form which lingered in the language by a quirk of usage, far older and purer than our modernised "got".
I must add my voice, however, to those reviewers who already reported misinformation with regard to the Irish, Catalan and French words Bryson discusses early in the book. The Japanese word for foreigner does NOT mean "stinking of foreign hair", it means a far less sinister "outside person". Bryson also states that because of the Japanese ideographic writing system, they cannot alphabetize and therefore have no logical system of filing documents. They in fact have a system as logical and simple as our alphabet that organises words by their phonetics. I do feel there are evidently too many examples of Bryson's twisting of the facts to fit the point he wants to make, and that any future editions should be amended.
That criticism aside, Mother Tongue is Bryson at his best; he lets the amusing facts speak for themselves and doesn't intrude too much with his own (sometimes-rather-tortured-in-his-travel-books) jokes. I can't recommend it more highly, and let it not go unmentioned how FUNNY this book is.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Complete work of fiction, 3 May 2009
By 
If you were to take a highlighter and highlight every factual inaccuracy, your pen would be empty before you got halfway through this book. It deserves no place in the non-fiction category and appears to be simply a publication for mr bryson to wax lyrical about transatlantic bastardisations of the English language.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mother Tongue-in-cheek, 13 Nov 2009
By 
Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
It has been said that English and American are two cultures divided by a common language. Here Bill Bryson, an American, gets to grips with that common language which through its extraordinary flexibility and the even more extraordinary willingness to welcome and absorb words and phrases from any of the world's five thousand-odd languages and dialects, has become the lingua franca of business, science and technology, and communication. Any past predictions that the English spoken in the two countries will gradually diverge into two mutually incomprehensible tongues has well and truly been laid to rest with the advent of the Internet since Bryson's book was first published. Despite 4000 different words in general usage it is very unlikely that serious confusion or misunderstanding would arise in an exchange between somebody from Birmingham, West Midlands or Birmingham, Alabama. Of course, the differences between American and British English is not the principal subject discussed in this fast-paced, humorous homage to the most expansive of the world's languages, though in some ways it is one of the most important, given the prominent role of the United States in shaping world economy and culture. Bryson is particularly strong on debunking the myths surrounding so-called Americanisms and the vitriol directed towards American English by British commentators and statesmen over the years. In fact, most terms were in usage in the mother country in the past, had died out there, and then were reintroduced in recent times from America to where they had previously been carried by British immigrants (Shakespeare, for example, used `trash', a word today associated uniquely with America).
Mother Tongue begins with a brief overview of the world's languages and is followed by a (scientifically dated) chapter on how and when language arose in humans and by what means it spread across the globe. We then learn how English morphed from an obscure peasant's language spoken on an obscure island 1500 years ago to become a linguistic superpower. There follow chapters on the varieties of English, how it came to be (loosely) standardised, the English-American schism, English as a world language, and on spelling, names, swearing and word play. English is, of course, spoken, pronounced and spelt in a multitude of forms. These variations are tailor-made for Bryson's familiar method of subjecting the reader to a dazzling bombardment of curious and often hilarious facts, anecdotes and rumours, some well-documented, some dubious and some plainly apocryphal. This is the style of the book throughout. Mother Tongue does not claim to be a work of scholarship but is a populist account based on extensive research and delivered with schoolboyish enthusiasm. It is pitched at a level that makes a complicated and sometimes abstruse subject available to all. This to me is the purpose of populist works: to introduce people to a subject and to encourage them to develop their fascination further. It is then that they move on to study more academic works. Mother Tongue fulfils the same role for English language and linguistics that Bryson's own A Short History of Nearly Everything does for science. Both books are highly recommended introductory texts.
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Mother Tongue: The English Language
Mother Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson (Paperback - 29 July 1999)
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