Home » Book Review » The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson

//published 1990//

Quite a while back I read Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927.  At the time, I really loved Bryson’s knack for relating historical anecdotes in a way that was informative, organized, engaging, and entertaining.  He pulls off more of the same in The Mother Tongue, an overview of the craziness that is the English language.

Bryson begins with a look at language in general, and the hows and whys of language development.  He goes on to talk about the many (many) inconsistencies in English language, and why some of them exist.  History, pronunciation, grammar, dictionaries, swearing, and American v. British English are all covered as well.

For the most part, the book reads really well.  However, the very nature of the topic invites one to list examples –

Sometimes, just to heighten confusion, the same words ends up with contradictory meanings.  This kind of word is called a contronym.  Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done.  Cleave can mean cut in half or stick together.  A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty, or calm and cheerful.  Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly.  A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off.  If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it.  To ravish means to rape or enrapture.  Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years.  Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing.  A blunt instrument is dull, but a blunt remark is pointed.

And while all of these examples are intriguing, after a while, it begins to feel as though the entire book is comprised of lists.  Every chapter is littered with paragraphs like the one above – here is an interesting thing; here are ten examples of it.  And while I might remember a contronym, I’m not likely to remember all of those examples, and I found myself frequently skimming those paragraphs in order to skip ahead to the next interesting tidbit, rather than weighing myself down with so many illustrative words.  To me, the book was more interesting when only one or two examples were chosen –

Sometimes words are made up for a specific purpose.  The U.S. Army in 1974 devised a food called funistrada as a test word during a survey of soldiers’ dietary preferences.  Although no such food existed, funistrada ranked higher in the survey than lima beans and eggplant.

I also quite enjoyed the history aspect.  The truth of the matter is that English has borrowed from so many sources, taken words from so many different languages, and made up so many words just for fun, that the language doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.  While some may try to give us rules of spelling and grammar, a brief look at English’s history shows that this may actually be an impossibility.  Still, many have tried!

People began to feel passionate about it [consistent spelling].  Noah Webster not only pushed for simplified spelling, but lobbied Congress to make it a legal requirement – turning American into the only country in history where deviant spelling would be a punishable offense.

By its very nature, English is a flexible language.  We make up words and terms at an astonishing rate, some of which spread and become widely known, while others remain inside family jokes.  There is a constant battle between people who do not wish for words to be new or used in new ways, and those who advocate English’s versatility.  It can be a difficult balance.

It’s a fine issue.  One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees.  It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries.  To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resisting change – at least slapdash change.  Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage.  We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one’s lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak.  In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others.  As John Ciardi observed, resistance may in end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.

As Bryson moved through the history of dictionaries and the men who wrote them, it was quite fascinating to contemplate just how much effort must have gone into such a task before the modern conveniences like computers and the internet.  Small wonder that the authors sometimes took some flights of editorialization –

[Samuel Johnson] defined a patron as “one who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery” or oats as a grain that sustained horses in England and people in Scotland.

Yet for all that, his Dictionary of the English Language, published in two volumes in June 1755, is a masterpiece, one of the landmarks of English literature. … Without a nearby library to drawn on, and with appallingly little financial backing … Johnson worked from a garret room off Fleet Street, where he defined some 43,000 words, illustrated with more than 114,000 supporting quotations drawn from every area of literature.  It is little wonder that he made some errors and occasionally indulged himself with barbed definitions.

Bryson always does an excellent job capturing the people of history, with snippets of background information that are entertaining and insightful.  The picture of Johnson, scribbling away in his garret, is really inspiring in a way.

I quite enjoyed the chapter that discussed the differences between British English and American English.  For all of the reading I do of British literature, I am still sometimes confused by small terms or phrases (and it definitely was years before I realized that the first floor in England is not the same as the first floor in America – and while I grant that “ground floor” is a more useful term, I’m still not convinced that you should have to go up a flight of stairs to attain the first floor!).

Of course, Bryson himself left me a bit confused by this tale –

…an American lady, newly arrived in London, who opened her front door to find three burly men on the steps informing her that they were her dustmen.  “Oh,” she blurted, “but I do my own dusting.”

Bryson continues merrily on with his paragraph…without bothering to tell the reader what a dustman really is!  (I had to look it up.  They collect garbage!  Which makes sense, considering that I did know that trash cans are dustbins!)

He also devotes a chapter to the globalization of English.  I always enjoy reading instructions that are obviously written by a non-native speaker (and I say this as someone who speaks about twenty words of Spanish and no other foreign languages; I am a strong advocate of the saying that “Someone who speaks broken English speaks another language much better than you”; however, this does not lessen the entertainment I derive from the fascinating attempts at our obviously ridiculous language); I have some instructions that came with a small speaker I purchase that tell me that I connect “more and two” I will have “a sound boom heard in the world everywhere.”  Bryson sites a similar example with an eraser he has from Japan –

…which says: “Mr. Friendly Quality Eraser, Mr. Friendly Arrived!!  He always stay near you, and steals in your mind to lead you a good situation.”  On the bottom of the eraser is a further message: “We are ecologically minded.  This package will self-destruct in Mother Earth.”

Many people do strive to learn English, and the few times that I have left the country, I have been quite grateful for their efforts.  (Although, speaking of erasers, I did once ask a hotel clerk in Guatemala for a razor and he gave me an eraser, which I cherish to this day as an example of the sometimes entertaining aspects of language barriers and accents.)

Besides the neverending lists of examples, the only other complaint I had about this book is just that it’s ready for an update.  It was published in 1990, and a lot has changed since then.  I would be really interested to learn about the impact that the internet has had on English, and language in general.  Things like hashtags, texting abbreviations, memes – these and more would be really interesting fodder.  Consequently, this book is left feeling slightly dated.  Isn’t it ridiculous how much has happened just in the last 25 years??

Overall, The Mother Tongue was an interesting read.  I’d love to see a new edition with fewer lists and some chapters on all the intriguing twists that our ridiculous, nonsensical, and fascinating language has taken since this book was first published.  Recommended.

PS Not actually a part of 20 Books of Summer, as I started this one all the way back in May!!!


2 thoughts on “The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson

  1. Pingback: Rearview Mirror // June 2016 (+ 20 Books of Summer update!) | The Aroma of Books

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.