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.
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 languagehat.com 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.
42: OH YEAH, WELSH IS UNPRONOUNCEABLE. UNLESS YOU HAVE TWO TONGUES AND A TINY ELECTRIC MOTOR IN YOUR PHARYNX LIKE A WELSHMAN. Bill Bryson, you dick.
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.
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.
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 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?
On the whole, though, it's a great quick-reading book to take on a trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*