on 4 February 1998
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).
on 29 March 2008
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).
"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.
on 16 April 2008
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.
on 21 September 2015
I got to about page 3 before reading the following: "In Russia there are no native words for efficiency, challenge, engagement ring, have fun, or take care [all cited in The New York Times, June 18, 1989]. English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget’s Thesaurus".
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.
on 3 August 2001
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.
on 3 April 1999
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.
on 27 August 2012
The book is very entertaining, but it also suffers from a lot of arrogance and ignorance. He is so proud of English e.g. being able to form compound words like "boathouse". He also mentions that all other Germanic languages can do the same thing. But then he continues by saying that only English can distinguish between "boathouse" and "houseboat"; the other languages cannot. Even if he does not mean any other language (I don't know if he checked if Korean or Japanese can make compound words), even if he only talks about Germanic languages, he is wrong. German can of course also distinguish between "Bootshaus" und "Hausboot". As far as German is concerned (my mother tongue), at least half of the examples he uses in his book are unfortunately just plainly wrong. And somehow English is always better than any other language in his book. That seems very arrogant to me, especially since the majority of examples of other languages are taken from European languages. There are a few more languages than that on this planet, which is something he just ignores.
on 20 February 2001
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.
on 23 October 2011
I teach English as a foreign language but other than that linguistics and language learning is just a hobby, having said that, I know enough Irish, German, Czech, Russian and Spanish to know that the things he said about these languages are half truths or complete and utter codswallop. For example claiming that the German preposition/suffix "auf" is unusual among foreign words in that it has more than one meaning... anyone who has spent any time learning a language will tell you that all of them have words with dozens of meanings (Except maybe Esperanto?). Furthermore there is no preposition in any language that cannot be translated into at least three or four prepositions in English, nor are there any English prepositions that don't have numerous translations in the other language. That's just how prepositions are! They don't translate!
The first chapter of this book has so many mistakes that I couldn't finish it. Almost every sentence has a mistake.
It is a collage of newspaper clippings. I can't go through all the mistakes, I really don't have the time, there are just too many. If it continues in this way then this is a work of complete and utter fiction.
I loved "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and now I am frightened that if I knew anything whatsoever about "Everything" I would have found that that book too was filled with amusing but completely made up factoids.
on 13 November 2009
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.