Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language Paperback – 1 Oct 2009
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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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
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).
The problem occurred near the start of chapter 14 (out of 16).
"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.
As a native Russian speaker, I can tell you that neither of these statements is true.
I don't think I'll bother reading the rest of the book. Mostly because I don't know what other facts the author (whom I used to admire) failed to check.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I have cone late to this book but thoroughly enjoyed it. A lot will have changed since out was published. The worldwide web must have affected English. But much is still true. Read morePublished 10 hours ago by Lesley
not holiday reading, and a bit more 'dense' than his other fact-rich books.Published 7 days ago by measurement
I'm a fan of Bryson but this isn't one of his best. Lots of interesting facts, but it gets a bit boring.Published 23 days ago by RG
Bill Bryson has a unique style and in this book, which is a real detour for him, he uses it to good affect. This book is not for everyone, but it is a good, easy, interesting read. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Kernow13
A very thorough guide to the vagarities and quirks of the English language. It explains how the language evolved and how it is related to other languages that evolved from Roman... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Michael Kaliski