Monday, June 7, 2010

Books for Writers (5): The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

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.


  1. Ooh, I think this sounds fascinating. I guess it isn't a surprise that I like words. I love it when I read and find a new one and I have to rush to the dictionary and find out what it means. Then of course I have to use it as many times as humanly possible until I find another new word to take its place.

    I'm not sure that I'd want to read it cover to cover but I certainly would find some chapters of interest. Thanks so much for reviewing it.

  2. This was the first Bryson I read when I was about 13 or 14. And it was in my school library! Thank you school :)

  3. Once upon a time I used to read a lot of travelogues and so read a few of Bryson's books and used to love them. Haven't read any travelogues at all for years, and I am not really sure why.

    By the way, I recently started a direct for Australian Book Bloggers. If you are interested in finding out more, there are more details on my blog here here

  4. Glad you enjoyed this one (if not as much as your previous encounters with his work). Balanced and interesting review, as always. I hope you're recovered from the flu!

  5. I quite enjoyed this one by Bryson. I agree that it's not a read cover-to-cover book, but I had great fun learning the etymology behind some of the more fun words in the language.

    Another book you might enjoy, if you're a word nerd, is Simon Hertnon's book of Endangered Words (I think it's From Afterwit to Zemblanity in Aus./NZ.) Any book that includes millihelen and lalochezia is pure win in my opinion. :)

  6. I have this book on my nightstand! I haven't read much yet, but it's pretty great! I am very much enjoying your blog! So, I thought I would give you a blog award! You can grab it from my blog ( (I haven't quite figured out how to send that to you yet...)
    Thanks again! Your blog is lots of fun!


  7. The Bryson book is certainly entertaining, but I found The Story of English ( more interesting and informative. I have the original book (it's been updated twice apparently, which suggests it still commands respect).