The Mother Tongue

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990.

Reason read: December is Bill Bryson’s birth month. Read in his honor.

The language that we speak is akin to breathing. What I mean to say is you really don’t thinking about breathing in or breathing out. You just do it. Same with talking. Most of us don’t think often or long enough about the words we use. Even less of us think about where those words came from in the first place. Language is a powerful tool, used for good, evil or even just plain fun. Think about how lawyers can twist an innocent person’s words into an admission of guilt. Crossword puzzles are counting on you to think of the wrong use or meaning of a word when you are trying to fill in the squares. Jokes are often based on word play: either funny or groan-worthy puns. Words matter. When words are strung together to form sentences, they mean even more. Bryson’s Mother Tongue is nothing short of a run-on sentence about language facts. Page after page after page of witticisms about words. An onslaught of linguistic trivia. That is not to say I did not enjoy Mother Tongue. I found it fascinating to learn that Robert Lowth simply didn’t care for the pairing of “you” and “was” and demanded it be changed to “you were.” Explanation for some grammatical rules “they are because they are” is the equivalent of a parent saying “because I said so.” I enjoyed learning that the word asparagus comes from the combined words sparrow and grass and that al fresco in Italian does not mean being outside, but rather, in prison. It reminded me of runner and anthropologist Dr. Tommy ‘Rivs’ Puzey. He taught me that you have to be careful how you pronounce Machu Picchu. The wrong emphasis could mean something completely different. Just make sure you pronounce the second ‘c’ in Picchu. Wink, wink. Probably my most favorite discovery was the word aposiopesis: the breaking off of thought. I suffer from that all the time!

Quotes to quote, “More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to” (p 11). I would be included in that rest. another one, “When you look into the background of these “rules” there is often little basis for them” (p 141). Amen to that.

Author fact: At the time of publication Bryson was an American living it England.

Book trivia: Mother Tongue was written in 1990. What can we say about the English speaking world thirty-plus years later?

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Mother Tongue. She didn’t even give it an asterisk to indicate a must read.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Bill Bryson: Too Good To Miss” (p 36).

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