Monday, September 24, 2007

'The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way'

by Bill Bryson

Non-Fiction/Language, 1990
Harper Perennial paperback, 236 p.
(#41 for 2007, Non-Fiction Five Challenge- #4)
With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, bestselling author Bill Bryson brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience, and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can’t) to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world’s largest growth industries.
I’ve long been interested in languages (even though I’m not very adept at picking up new ones), and I’m often compelled to pick up these types of books. (Whether I get around to reading them is another story completely!) This was my first book by Bryson and I can understand why people enjoy his travel books so much. His humour showed itself here in places and made me chuckle a few times while reading.
As for the historical information, some of it I’d learned back when I studied Linguistics so it wasn’t new but it was nice to be reminded and there was plenty of language trivia that was both amusing and interesting to read. I did wonder about some of the ‘facts’ and apparently the book does contain many factual errors, some of which can be found HERE. Published 17 years ago, it’s now also slightly dated in the chapters dealing with modern English. I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on texting, for example.
I do find it interesting that this book isn’t listed in the books section on the websites of either his US publisher or his UK publisher.
Overall it was a sometimes amusing overview of how English became what it is today, but there are probably much better, more accurate books out there on the subject. I have a couple more of Bryson’s books in the TBR mountain range and I do look forward to getting to them at some point.

My Rating: 2.5/5


  1. I enjoyed "The Mother Tongue" in much the same way as you. I had taken a history of the English language class back in my university days, so it was fun to read as a sort of irreverent refresher.

    The only other Bryson I've read is "Notes from a Small Island," which I really enjoyed. Not surprising, being the Anglophile that I am. :)


  2. Interesting that you can't find it at either publisher's site! I've had this particular Bryson on my shelf for years. I don't think I've read it, but I'm not actually certain.

  3. That's interesting that it is not listed on the publisher's website. Must have fallen through the cracks around the time that they went online.

    Good review. I love Bryson.

  4. I love Bill Bryson's books! When you get a chance, check out his 'Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid'. It was really hilarious!

  5. Teresa,
    irreverent refresher - good way to describe it! The other 2 I have are the science one, and 'Notes from a Small Island'! But of course! :P

    It is mentioned briefly in his bio but not on the books page. Opinions on Amazon seem to go to both extremes. Those who love it because of Bryson's humour, regardless of whether the facts are accurate or not, and those that discount it completely because of the errors. I have to admit that the presence of so many errors did take away some of my enjoyment, since I feel I can't trust his little factoids and trivia. I bought a couple of books on English from Cambridge University Press. They should be more reliable?? I really should get around to reading them sometime.

    Like I mentioned to Nancy, they don't ignore it completely, it's mentioned in the bio, but not on the books page. It's still available online so it must not be out of print.

    Happy Reader,
    Thanks for the suggestion. So many people seem to love his humour, I'll definitely try another.

  6. Wow! That would be a lot of errors! We have this book shelved in the Linguistics section of the store at work. I keep thinking Rod would enjoy it, as he loves anything to do with words/language and likes Bryson.

  7. Les,
    Yes all the errors made it a bit of a disappointing read after all. I'd say if you or Rod read it to take the trivia with a grain of salt and focus on Bryson's humourous take on things instead.

  8. I wasn't even aware he'd written this one! Go figure. I have A Walk in the Woods in my TBR (thanks to Les), and I'm planning to read it on our mountain vacation in a few weeks (if all goes well and we actually get to go). There's nothing like a book to set the scene, eh? :)

  9. Andi,
    I hope your mountain vacation goes ahead. Sounds like the perfect read for it!


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