The mother tongue : English & how it got that way

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 1990




New York : W. Morrow, 1990.


With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson--the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent--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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Okay, let's try a test: I'm pretty sure this has an error on every page, or at least an infelicity, so I'll go through the first third (because that's when it actually starts talking about actual languages, as opposed to Neanderthal larynxes and silliness) chapter and see. The book will start at 5 stars, lose half a star for each page with an error, and gain half a star for each page with no error.

p. 35 "Irish Gaelic possesses no equivalent of 'yes' or 'no'." Shibboleth! As if you can get by without yes and no. I'm not going to devote time to disproving all these, but see, like or Wikipedia.

36: "Yukimasu" for "ikimasu?" It's the Heisei Era, dude.

37: This thing about the Greek gesture with the hand on the knee and the wagging and the looking into the middle distance would be funny in a Will Cuppy book, but since Bryson doesn't set up deadpan "saying the thing which is not" jokes anywhere else, I can only assume he actually believes this gesture to exist.

38: No mistakes I can see! Half a star.

39: No mistakes! He's on a roll.

40: Dimotiki was "held in low esteem"? It was basically a conservative-progressive split, wasn't it, and very hard fought?

41: More people speak French in Manitoba than Ukrainian. I'm just gonna pull rank as a Canadian on this one.


43: Fuck, he's still on the Welsh. Come on now. Llwchymynydd? The only sound we don't have is the /hl/ of "Ll," and that's not hard. Ponthrydfendigaid? Ditto only with /hr/. And that sound actually did used to exist in English.

44: Welsh, with 350,000-odd daily speakers, is humming along niccely, while Irish, with 350,000-odd daily speakers, is at death's door?

45: "Consider the loss to English literature if Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Synge, Behan, and Ireland's other literary masters had written in what is unmistakeably a fringe language." That's just stupid. Consider what Ulysses would have been like if written in Irish? Amazing, no doubt. He should have written two versions and given Joyce scholars something to write their dissertations on. But I suppose it isn't really an error.

Final score: 2.5 stars. 'Sabout right, but only cos his patter is snappy.
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LibraryThing member Intemerata
Certainly very entertaining, but not particularly reliable: I don't think I can take seriously any book on language that repeats the old cliché about Eskimos and their words for snow more or less uncritically. This book is a lot like Wikipedia - there's a lot of very interesting information in there, but it's difficult to tell what's accurate and what isn't.… (more)
LibraryThing member drbubbles
The two or three chapters that were actually about historical development of languages were tantalizingly good, but fell measurably short of what I was hoping for. Much of the rest of the book is a collection of trivia organized by themes. Some of it's interesting but overall those parts smacked too much of the Book of Useless Information, the existence in this universe of which is a waste of perfectly good matter-energy.… (more)
LibraryThing member wishanem
Bryson is neither a linguist or a historian.

Neither am I, but I mention his lack of credentials because he makes many mistakes in those areas with utter confidence.

I would like to say that anything which Bryson claims without a specific citation should be considered unfounded rumor, but I'm not terribly confident that all of his citations are from sound sources. In fact, considering his misunderstanding of what I thought were common words I'm not certain that his citations from reliable sources would actually back him up.

The following example especially annoyed me:

"A rich vocabulary carries with it a concomitant danger of verbosity, as evidenced by our peculiar affection for redundant phrases, expressions that say the same thing twice: beck and call, law and order, assault and battery, null and void, safe and sound, first and fore-most. . ."

Bryson is wrong that these terms are redundant. They each convey two related ideas in order to form a complete impression.

A beck is a gestural request (as in beckon) while a call is verbal. Law refers the formal codified rules of society while order describes the general state of organization and a lack of chaos. Assault means an attack (including an attempted or threatened attack), while battery clarifies that actual physical violence was initiated. When something is made null it loses all past efficacy (as in a nullified contract, whose terms are considered never to have been valid), while to void something removes all future efficacy (as a used coupon might be voided). Safe means not in danger, and sound means unharmed. First is a time-related term implying subsequent tasks, while foremost specifies importance and implies less important tasks.

Bryson actually continues with many more phrases incorrectly identified as redundant, but I will spare you the additional pedantry. My point is that Bryson often makes this sort of incorrect claim and expounds on it at length. He doesn't only make cursory mistakes, he makes fundamental errors and then draws conclusions from them.

The book is also, through no fault of its author, 23 years out-of-date. It was published in 1991 and right at the beginning it asserts that more than 300 million people in the world speak English. Estimates of the number of people who speak English in the world today range from 500 million to more than double that number. Later on the book asserts that 40 or 50 million people in India speak English. For comparison, according to Wikipedia there are over 125 million English speakers in India, 90 million in Pakistan, and 30 million in Bangladesh. All of the speculation about the ways that English might diverge into unintelligible regional variants seem ridiculous viewed through the lens of the internet.

On top of all that the book is generally unstructured, apart from the general themes of the chapters. It constantly ranges between historical anecdotes, discussions of grammatical rules, and observations about amusing names. While I enjoyed it, I find it impossible to recommend.
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LibraryThing member ColinFine
A hugely entertaining writer, but - as commonly when a journalist strays into a specialist area - often inaccurate or contentious.
My copy has abundant annotations, occasionally saying 'true' or 'Good!', but mostly 'crap' or 'what about xxx?'.
I much prefer to point people at Pinker's 'The Language Instinct' - granted that he presents Chomskyism as the only alternative, but he does show you how language works, rather than exhibiting a zoo of half-understood monsters.
I would
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LibraryThing member Cymrodor
As a Welsh speaker I noticed mispellings, mistranslations, misunderstandings and generally inaccurate and false statements. This really makes me wonder how accurate he is in talking of other languages.

I don't see the point of labouring the fact that Welsh looks unpronouncable to those who attempt to read it without knowing the alphabet or the language. From an English-speaking perspective, 'Llwchmynydd' is a name of eleven consonants. But to a Welsh speaker, it's five consonants, three vowels, and its spelling is phonetically correct - more than can be said of many English words, which the book later highlights.

On page 25, the Welsh word gwdihw (goody-hoo) isn't the best example of an onomastic name for an owl as it's a word used by very young children and their parents in the same way my sister refers to a sheep as a meh-meh when with her 2-year-old son. The more proper Welsh word for an owl is tylluan.

On page 84, 'Pwy ydych chi?' does not ask HOW someone is but enquires WHO someone is. Also, the fact that it's Welsh means it isn't Gaelic, just as English isn't French.

I also noticed an error in his description of English phonetics on page 87. Surely the "th" in those is soft, while the "th" in thought is hard?
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LibraryThing member dolohov
Many, many factual errors. It's an entertaining book, but every time he mentioned Japanese I caught him in an error or oversimplification (his remark about the lack of plurals, for example, was broadly true, but his particular example ("children") was wrong). Of course, that's not the subject matter, it's just a subject I happen to know about, but it does make me wonder how thoroughly he checked his facts. There's also definitely a vein of anti-Anglicism, which surprised me given his apparent fondness for the country.
On the whole, though, it's a great quick-reading book to take on a trip.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
I love the English language, and have a tendency to correct the grammar of newscasters and others in positions that require proper grammar. Of course, I wouldn't much like it if someone corrected my mistakes, but hey – that's not the point.

This is a wonderful book for English pedants. I found it fascinating. Others, those less enamored by language, might find it a bit dry in a few spots. There are plenty of facts and examples, lots of English anomalies, and quite a bit of humor. Education and entertainment all in one; what more could I want? Other reviewers have pointed out quite a few mistakes, but I'm not pedantic enough to have recognized those. So, yes, I'll take some of the facts with a grain of salt, but still enjoyed the book.

I listened to an unabridged audio edition of this, and it was very well read. However, I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more if I had read the book rather than listened to it, or perhaps listened while reading. There are many examples of spellings that do not match the common pronunciation, and the narrator would spell the word and then pronounce it. My brain wasn't quick enough to imagine the written word before I was given the spoken one. However, having the spoken word actually spoken was a boon that the print book can't provide.

I do disagree with the author on some of his positions. I cannot accept that “infer” and “imply” can be used interchangeably. I am not going to dumb-down grammar because the casual version is increasingly accepted. So the English language will move on quite nicely without me, but a girl has to have her standards.
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LibraryThing member murderbydeath
I'm partial to Bill Bryson's writing to start with - I enjoy his subtle and not-so-subtle snark. As an expat who often gets comments about her accent, word choice, or idiom use and is sometimes forced to defend the same, I've become interested in the English language across different cultures, so I was predisposed to really enjoy Mother Tongue.

And I did. The beginning was less-interesting, although I still learned a lot (as soon as anyone starts talking about invasions, my eyes tend to glaze a bit). There were a few things he didn't get exactly right; times when he used specific examples of dialect or word choices that I knew from personal experience were not as sweeping as he made them sound. For example: I grew up primarily in Florida but spent years in Georgia and travelling to family in South Carolina and never once did I hear the word "Ladybird" used instead of "Ladybug". I didn't hear ladybird used until I moved to Australia.

The last half of the book was easily more interesting as these chapters covered the differences between UK and American English, swearing and word games. Bryson doesn't pull any punches in the section that outlines the word differences between UK and US - many of the words the US is credited for creating are in fact very old UK words that had fallen out of fashion (and memory) in England. The last half flew by and DH got an earful as I read passage after passage out loud.

I'd definitely recommend it for those that want a light overview of the history of the english language.
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LibraryThing member shiunji
Truly, you will never see English in the same way again.

If like me, you often ponder of how the improbable and silly sayings and words in English came in to existence, or why spellings have such great variation, you will discover many delights like these and more, within this tome. The best thing is that it is written in a way that suggests it is the Bryson's opinion, and though it tries to convince you that this indeed is the truth, it doesn't in any way imply that it is.

If you are the sort that enjoys that special, rare but growing category of non-fiction that is informal yet well researched scholarship - you have to try this book. Once you hit the 2nd paragraph, "Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: 'The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.'", you will be undoubtedly hooked.

Pettily, I took 1/2 a point away because at times Bill shows off his vast knowledge at the expense of being too extensive with his examples.
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LibraryThing member princemuchao
The Mother Tongue is an almost flawless popularization of the linguistic history of English. I’ve read many of Bryson’s books and I have to say that this was his best. Working with a subject that could so easily be dry and humorless, he somehow entertains and informs with admirable ease.

The chapters are broken up in a very logical manner, and address topics such as the dawn of language before concentrating specifically on English. He gleefully skewers grammarians and packs so many interesting facts into this short book, I stopped writing them down – I’ll just read it again.

The one flaw in this book is the short chapter on Names. Bryson gets a bit carried away with examples and suddenly begins to become tedious. Luckily this does not last very long.

If you have enjoyed any of Bryson’s books or are interested in words and wordplay, I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member audreya2
The Mother Tongue is a fascinating, highly entertaining read. Bill Bryson is probably best known for his hilarious travel writing, but he brings his signiture humor and wit to this history of the English language. Filled with countless tidbits and anecdotes, at the same time the book provides a wonderful overview of the origin of language in general and English in particular. It is a great introduction for the novice and will inevitably expand your vocabulary. And besides - who doesn't want to read a whole chapter on the history of cursing? (Yes, I can start a sentence with "and." Bill Bryson says so.)… (more)
LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
It is a _wonderful_ book. There are things he got just plain wrong, but they don't materially detract from what he's saying. I spend a lot of time looking at the OED after reading a chapter or two. Things like the many and rapidly changing meanings of 'nice' - Good Omens only mentions _one_ variant, Bryson lists 7-8 within two centuries. The real way the 'Great Vowel Shift' worked, the _last_ great surge of coinages in English (encompassing Shakespeare's time), why we have some of our weird spellings (they're phonetic! We just abandoned the pronunciation for which they were phonetic...) - lots of fascinating bits. If you like etymology or are curious about the oddities of English, you should read this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5447. The Mother Tongue & How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson (read 28 Feb 2017) This is an 1990 book and so is a bit out of date in some respects. But it is full of fascinatingly interesting things about language, and often funny as well. It is the 7th book by Bryson I have read. I am not sure he is really an authority on linguistics but he makes a read stab at showing he has done lots of research.… (more)
LibraryThing member NellieMc
Definitely typical Bryson -- an excellent primer on what can be a dull subject (linguistics). He hits all the highlights and introduces a lot of humor to make his points. Not a comprehensive look at the subject but one with a lot of insight and definitely worth taking the time to read.
LibraryThing member jjmachshev
What a hilarious, fascinating, and educational look at our wacky, wonderful, and WAY complicated language. If English is your mother tongue, this book will amaze and amuse you with interesting tidbits about just how our language evolved into the wonder it is. If you had to learn English as a second language (and more power to you), then bless your heart for taking on the task. You will read this book, and say YES, absolutely, I always wondered..., etc. Bill Bryson turns his sharp-eyes to "The Mother Tongue" and takes us all on a fabulous journey through and overview of the intricacies of human language. You will laugh, smile, and learn a few things while you're at it!!!… (more)
LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
Have you ever wondered why Bill Bryson is such an interesting author? Maybe it’s because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the English language. In The Mother Tongue, Bryson takes the reader on a tour through the formation and the use of the most common language in the world.

Every page—I’m not exaggerating here—had something on it that made me either laugh or think. If you’re a fan of trivia, this book is especially geared toward you. Here’s my favourite tidbit: the “k” in knight was not originally silent. Do you realize what that means? The French Knight in England in Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail is actually historically accurate in calling down those English kuh-ni’-gets. Awesome.

Any English speaking person should enjoy this substantial treatment of our mother tongue.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Chuckle-worthy and interesting as well...: This book manages to make the history of the English Language amusing and interesting. It is a thorough examination of words, how we use them and how they evolved - including swear words, cuss words, slang and everyday things like... why DID the yanks take the second 'i' out of aluminium?… (more)
LibraryThing member Periodista
Certainly not a top priority for librarians of a public or university level. Sure, Bryson can be very entertaining when telling tales of how words in use by Americans may be older than the current British ones, how meanings have evolved over time and so on.

But I have questions about the accuracy of any it given the numerous errors, particularly the huge ones re his statements about Japanese and Chinese. It's not that complicated! Ask a native speaker. Ask a person that has studied Chinese or Japanese for a month! And this book was written, if not published, at the height of Japan-is-taking-over-the-world hysteria. Doesn't he have any idea how to do research? Every time he said "English is unique in ..." I yearned for a footnote. This book needs a lot more footnotes.

Apologies, I'm going on a bender here ...

I don't think Bryson even comprehended that kanji, the characters used in written Japanese in conjunction with phonetic "letters", are Chinese in origin and often (usually?) identical in both languages. Basic characters like "pig" and "field" and "man" and "gate" are the same in Japanese and the traditional, unsimplified characters used in Taiwan, Singapore and (at least for now) Hong Kong.

Anyway, he says Japanese has 7,000 characters?! Perhaps prior to 1950 a literary scholar would know that many. But since the post-WW2 reforms, as any Japanese person or student of Japanese will tell you, everyone is suppose to learn 1,800- something character by the time of high school graduation. It isn't like the language suffers from a lack of vocabulary as a result because the characters are combined and inflected with the two "alphabets," primarily hiragana. Katakana is used for foreign imports, emphasis and so on.

*This isn't that hard to understand.* The two alphabets (all but one letter representing a syllable) represent the same sounds. Think of katakana as italics or the use of quotation marks. .A child learning the written language writes totally in hiragana, adding characters and katakana as she learns them. A Japanese learning a Western language perceives four systems: upper and lower-case in print and written forms of letters.

Then, after high school or college, if you forget some characters--and most Japanese will--popular low-brow reading matter, such as comic books, don't employ 1,800-whatever characters. As with children's books, they use a much more limited number of kanji and even supply little hiragana characters underneath many of the characters that are used. If you're studying Japanese, it's amazing how soon you can start reading manga. Manga, comic books, are responsible for 1/3 of book sales in Japan. You can't assume these are intended for kids because so much of manga is pornographic or super-violent.

Sorry to blather on .. but how about when he says computers at the time have to be bigger or something because Japanese has so many letters?! It doesn't take much for us to type 2,000 or 7,000 characters in an hour and we could do it on primitive computers without hard disks.

Let's just say he also has many idiotic statements about Chinese. He himself knows that identical English words have evolved to have different meanings or connotations in, say, US and Britain or Britain and India. (He says 4,000 and the US and Britain, though I dispute many he lists on p. 171. All Americans call a see-saw a teeter-totter? What's a downspout?) And yet we native Anglophones can usually talk to each other easily. I've noticed that Swedish and Norwegians can understand each other while speaking their native tongue too. That is not true for mono-lingual speakers of, say, Hainanese and Mandarin or Shanghainese and Teochew or Cantonese and Mandarin.

Then you have the distinct dialects of, say, Cantonese; these dialect speakers sometimes stumble as much as someone from the Appalachian hill country might have with a backwoods Aussie.

He also notes that many English words have stayed the same in form while meaning has changed over time.Yet Bryson somehow thinks over the centuries the character for X in one Chinese language has remained the same in another. Yes, if you're attempting classical Chinese poetry or writing a physics textbook, you had better use the Mandarin characters but that isn't what most Chinese people are reading or writing day in, day out. Even in HK, most adults have not completed the equivalent of high school. They're reading tabloids and rather low-brow newspapers that don't use too many characters. *These newspapers are in Cantonese.* They have characters and combos that represent slangy Cantonese terms. A Taiwanese or Hokkien Singaporean that reads traditional characters will still be befuddled.

I also don't think Bryson comprehends that China uses simplified characters and Taiwan, Singapore and HK (at the time of publication anyway) still use the traditional, more complicated characters. I don't know how difficult it is for a reader of one to understand the other. I'd like to know!

Also, I thought this book would go into the early history of English--you know, Germanic origins, the relationship to Norse and Icelandic, Anglos and Saxons, the Roman and Norman influx blah blah. Skimming doesn't describe Bryson's hopscotch, anecdotal coverage. This is covered more throughly in high school textbooks.
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LibraryThing member librken
Bryson's logic is flawed throughout and he draws many conclusions that aren't supported by his own facts. Entertaining nonetheless.
LibraryThing member mmh166
Wonderfully done history of the English language for the armchair linguist. Bryson knows how to write great non-fiction.
LibraryThing member herschelian
I loved this book from the moment I first started reading it. Words have always had a fascination for me, where they come from, how we use them, how meanings change. I found this a very happy book, funny in places, always informative and a good read.
LibraryThing member DSD
This was an entertaining and informative read as is typical of Bill Bryson. If this had been one of the textbooks at school my english classes would have been a lot more interesting!

From the back cover - In this hymn to the mother tongue Bill Bryson examines how a language 'treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants' has now become the undisputed global language (more people learn English in China than live in the USA). He explains how the words 'shampoo', 'sofa', 'slogan', 'OK', and 'rowdy' (and others drawn from over 50 languages) got into our dictionaries and how the major dictionaries were created. He explores the countless varieties of English - from American to Australian, from Creole to Cockney rhyming slang - and the perils of marketing brands with names like Pschitt and Super Piss. With entertaining sections on the the oddities of swearing and spelling, spoonerisms and Scrabble, and a consideration of what we mean by 'good English', 'Mother Tongue' is one of the most stimulating books yet written on this endlessly engrosing subject.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaelirenee
Hillarious, well written, insightful-this is the kind of book you want to read a dozen times just to soak in all the information and anecdotes he gives.
LibraryThing member Sean191
Bryson shows a different side of his talent to some extent with this offering. A brilliant and humorous travel writer, in Mother Tongue Bryson shows his love of language in an even more apparent way than usual.

Mother Tongue is filled with really interesting information. Sometimes it does stray into a little too dry an area, but overall a worthwhile read for Anglophiles - I'm not even sure if I have that right... *sigh*… (more)



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