I've said before that Bill Bryson could describe paint drying and I'd still find it fascinating. I'm also a major word nerd, so his book on the English language, The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way, was a must-read. As an American, Bryson is perhaps the best person to discuss the English language--or at least, better than an English person, because he's not afraid to call a spade a spade. English had an extremely humble beginning as the tongue of peasants, and while he rejoices in the language of Shakespeare, Wilde and Shaw, Bryson also marvels that it caught on at all.
I read The Mother Tongue over two fever-filled days of 'flu. Non-fiction is always a comfort to me when I'm sick. Being irrevocably couch-bound makes me feel like I need to put something stimulating in my brain. It is unfortunate, though, that whatever I read through a particularly bad bout of illness becomes associated with feeling pretty bloody awful, and writing this review is reminding me just how bad I felt at the time. I'll try and not let these associations affect how I feel about the book!
Bryson devotes chapters to spelling and pronunciation, Old World (England) and New World (America) English, dialects, swearing and so on. But by far the most interesting chapter is chapter four, The First Thousand Years. My English history is rather hazy, but I do know there was a Germanic tribe called the Angles, who, way back when, filled the vacuum left by the Romans when they abandoned England to the barbarians. Bryson is rather hazy on the details too (not his fault; the Angles were illiterate so there's no written history from the time) but at some point the language spoken in England became distinct from the dialects of mainland Europe. It subsequently became one of the world's richest languages and the most successful, despite the drawbacks of its spelling and grammar.
I will happily agree with Bryson that the inconsistencies of English spelling must be excruciating for someone who is learning English. I didn't find it the least odd or confusing as a child that though, through, rough, trough, bough and so on are all spelled similarly but pronounced entirely differently. But now I think about it, it's rather odd that this is so. Even odder is that English grammar isn't English, it's Latin. At some point some very scholarly fellow sat down and decided that because it's impossible to split the infinitive in Latin, we shouldn't be able to do it in English either. Again, I'll agree with Bryson here. Infinitives are two words in English, i.e. "to go", while they are only one in Latin. It can very tempting to put an adverb in the middle of an infinitive, thus "splitting" it, i.e. "To boldly go", which you will recognise from the opening credits of Star Trek. It's "incorrect", but it sounds good.
I'm not just a word nerd. I'm also a bit of a grammar nerd so it came as a shock when Bryson began railing against the rules of grammar in general. To him, grammar is the realm of pedants and the rules are often baseless. I can't help feeling that he missed the point deliberately in order to amuse the reader. Yes, a lot of the rules are stuffy and it's absurd to have imported our grammar from a foreign (and dead) language. But the reason for good grammar is to aid understanding. Remove ambiguities. In short, it helps the writer get his or her point across without being misunderstood. Bryson ignores this while cheerfully implementing the rules that he denounces. I didn't spot a split infinitive in the entire book.
I skipped over much of his discussion of American dialects. My 'fluey mind just wasn't interested in the nuances of the Baltimore accent. Americans will undoubtedly find these parts of the book fascinating. And while this is a book on English, it's aimed squarely at the American market. It's the first time I've noticed such a bias in Bryson's writing.
The Mother Tongue was not quite as satisfying as some of Bryson's other books, and not nearly as amusing. (Or was that just because my sense of humour was as under the weather as the rest of me?) It's a book to pick and choose chapters as you go along, reading the aspects that interest you and discarding the rest. But it's easily digestible, like all Bryson's writing, and highly informative. Anyone who loves words will find a lot in this book to enjoy.