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!!!

One Summer: America 1927


by Bill Bryson

Published 2013

Okay, so we all know that I’m a super lazy reader.  Even though I have plenty of nonfiction books on their own, special TBR Non-Fiction List, that list just doesn’t seem to move along as quickly as it ought.  But I will say that One Summer ended up being a fantastic read, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and hated to put down (which rarely happens with nonfiction), and, on a not unrelated note, made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions.

While this book is mostly about 1927, Bryson does an excellent job providing background and tying everything together, including tidy summaries of what happens in The Future.  One of the biggest impressions that I took away from this book was what a small world it is, and was – just the interconnectness of everything and everyone.  Bryson does an excellent job with that aspect, throwing out little tidbits of “who later became so-and-so’s father-in-law” or whatever (almost too much, honestly, because names kept reappearing and I wasn’t always 100% sure who it was I was supposed to be remembering, so I may have missed some irony here and there).  This is, by the way, a heavily ironic book.  1927 was just as full of inconsistencies and confusion as the present, and Bryson is unafraid to make a mockery of things that seem ridiculous.  While entertaining much of the time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ruffled as two of his favorite mockery-people were two of which I am quite fond – Charles Lindbergh and Herbert Hoover.  Nonetheless, while Bryson writes the former off as an awkward, uneducated farm boy-turned-Nazi (not completely true) and the latter off as a selfish, manipulative, feelingless machine (also must be taken with a grain of salt), he does at least grudgingly admit that they may, possibly, have contributed some good to the world.

Overall, while Bryson’s writing is a great deal of fun (as you will read below as I can’t resist quoting him extensively), I was occasionally annoyed by his insistence on dragging up every bit of dirty laundry/negative information he could find about everyone.  It seems that there’s no one out there who isn’t on drugs, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, or, if nothing else, is dreadfully prosy and dull.

But my favorite bits were about society in general, rather than specific people.  For instance, a couple of paragraphs on theater in the 1920s –

Plausibility, it seems, was not something that audiences insisted on in the 1920s.  Katy Did, which had opened the previous week at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, involved a waitress who, according to the plot summary, falls for ‘a dishwasher and parttime bootlegger who turns out to be the exiled King of Suavia.’ …  It wasn’t all froth and melodrama, however.  Eugene O’Neill produced his longest and densest play in 1927, Strange Interlude, which took five hours to perform and gave audiences an expansive, not say exhausting, look at insanity, abortion, heartbreak, illegitimacy, and death.  Audiences watched the first part of the play from 5:15 to 7:00 p.m., had a break for dinner, and then returned at 8:30 for a further three and a half hours of punishing gloom.

Every time I read history, especially as I’ve been focusing on early 20th century history, I am so entertained to find context for other reading/movies/etc.  For instance, there is a fantastic scene in one of the Marx Brothers movies (I can’t remember which – Animal Crackers?) in which Groucho has these “strange interludes” with a monologue with himself (“I see figures.  Straannnnnge figures.  Weeeeeird figures”) which is apparently a mockery of O’Neill’s play, something Groucho’s contemporary audience would have likely recognized right away.

One of Bryson’s habits throughout is to introduce someone, and then give a synopsis of the person’s life.  I find it entertaining to realize how strange we all are if someone only picks out bits and snippets.  Although in some cases, the strangeness may be legitimate:

Ruppert’s most arresting peccadillo was that he kept a second home in Garrison, New York, where he maintained a shrine to his mother in for the form of a room containing everything she would need if she came back to life.  This may go some way toward explaining why he never married.

You can practically hear the rim shot.

Bryson talks a great deal about the changes of technology in the 1920s, especially the advent of radio, television, and the talkies.  It’s mind-boggling to realize how relatively new these things are.

Productions at even the larger [radio] stations tended to be more than slightly amateurish.  When Norman Brokenshire, a broadcaster for WHN in New York, found himself with a long lull to fill and nothing more to say, he announced:  ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the sounds of New York City,’ and thrust the microphone out the window.

That’s less than a hundred years ago!

Prohibition comes in for its fair share of mockery, mainly because it was a ludicrous failure no matter how you look at it.

Prohibition bred great volumes of hypocrisy, too.  In the summer of 1926, Colonel Ned Green, Prohibition administrator for Norther California, was suspended after it emerged that he held cocktail parties in the Prohibition administration offices in San Francisco.  ‘I should have been suspended long ago,’ he amiably told reporters.

Of course, the rise of the automobile was one of the greatest events of the decades, and Bryson dedicates a chunk of his book to Henry Ford and his competitors (but mostly Ford because, let’s face it, he was the biggest character).  One fun fact that I found intriguing –

One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side.  Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road.  Ford reasoned that this convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit.

Setting aside the fact that Ford obviously assumed women wouldn’t be driving, I’m consistently impressed by his simple practicality.  Everything about the T screams it – just the vision that normal, everyday people would own cars was something no one else was really considering at all.  Bryson says that Ford produced almost 11,000 Model T’s their first full year, which was more than anyone else had ever made of a car.  They were up to 250,000 by 1913-1914, and a staggering 1.25 million annually by 1920-21.

The ludicrous opulence of the 1920s is another intriguing facet of the decade.  Bryson talks about various buildings, especially theaters, that were built during that time.  (We still have a couple in Columbus, and nothing beats going to see a play at the Southern!  Although it was built much earlier, it was renovated in the 20’s, and you can tell!)  My personal favorite description, however –

At the Tivoli in Chicago the marbled lobby was said to be an almost exact copy of the king’s chapel at Versailles except presumably for the smell of popcorn.

Overall, what Bryson does is make the 1920s, through the focus on 1927 especially, come to life by tying together so many individuals and their stories, and he does it with humor and a strong sense for the ironic.  I definitely recommend this book as a fascinating glimpse into the decade, despite his rather cynical attitude towards, well, everyone.

In closing, despite the fact that this review has been quite quote-heavy, I can’t resist this fascinating tale –

[In 1927 Liveright] brought over from London a play that had been a big success there:  Dracula.  For the American production, he selected a little-known Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi.  Although Lugosi had been in America for six years, he still spoke little English and learned his lines phonetically, without really understanding what they meant, which gave him interesting diction.  … [Dracula] was the making of Bela Lugosi, who devoted the rest of his career to playing Dracula.  He starred in the 1931 movie and a great number of sequels.  …  professionally he did almost nothing else for almost thirty years.  Such was his devotion to the role that when he died in 1956, he was buried dressed as Count Dracula.

The world, my friends, is made of many fascinating people.