The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

by Bill Bryson


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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.

Author Biography:

Bill Bryson's many books include, most recently In a Sunburned Country, as well as I'm a Stranger Here Myself, A walk in the Woods, Neither Here Nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue.He edited The Best American Travel Writing 2000. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he lived in England for almost two decades. He now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and four children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780688078959
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/28/1990
Pages: 288

About the Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include One Summer, A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue. He lives in England with his wife.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say that the results are sometimes mixed.

Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: "The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway." Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor." Or these instructions gracing a packet of convenience food from Italy: "Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in a only couch."

Clearly the writer of that message was not about to let a little ignorance of English stand in the way of a good meal. In fact, it would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.

To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking to be mangled. Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth, that a person who says " I could care less" means the same thing as someone who says " I couldn't care less," that a sign in a store saying ALL ITEMS NOTON SALE doesn't mean literally what it says (that every item is not on sale) but rather that only some of the items are on sale, that when a person says to you, "How do you do?" he will be taken aback if you reply, with impeccable logic, "How do I do what?"

The complexities of the English language are such that even native speakers cannot always communicate effectively, as almost every American learns on his first day in Britain. Indeed, Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, created a stir in linguistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced his belief that American English and English English are drifting apart so rapidly that within zoo years the two nations won't be able to understand each other at all.

That may be. But if the Briton and American of the twentysecond century baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won't confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. Already Germans talk about ein image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refueling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Macs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages, the lingua franca of business, science, education, politics, and pop music. For the airlines of 157 nations (out of 168 in the world), it is the agreed international language of discourse. In India, there are more than 3,000 newspapers in English. The six member nations of the European Free Trade Association conduct all their business in English, even though not one of them is an English-speaking country. When companies from four European countries—France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland—formed a joint truck-making venture called Iveco in 1977, they chose English as their working language because, as one of the founders wryly observed, "It puts us all at an equal disadvantage." For the same reasons, when the Swiss company Brown Boveri and the Swedish company ASEA merged in 1988, they decided to make the official company language English, and when Volkswagen set up a factory in Shanghai it found that there were too few Germans who spoke Chinese and too few Chinese who spoke German, so now Volkswagen's German engineers and Chinese managers communicate in a language that is alien to both of them, English. Belgium has two languages, French and Flemish, yet on a recent visit to the country's main airport in Brussels, I counted more than fifty posters and billboards and not one of them was in French or Flemish. They were all in English.

For non-English speakers everywhere, English has become the common tongue. Even in France, the most determinedly nonEnglish-speaking nation in the world, the war against English encroachment has largely been lost. In early 1989, the Pasteur Institute announced that henceforth it would publish its famed international medical review only in English because too few people were reading it in French.

English is, in short, one of the world's great growth industries. "English is just as much big business as the export of manufactured goods," Professor Randolph Quirk of Oxford University has written. "There are problems with what you might call 'after-sales service'; and `delivery' can be awkward; but at any rate the production lines are trouble free." [The Observer, October 26, 1980] Indeed, such is the demand to learn the language that there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.

It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,00 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000) The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between " I wrote" and " I have written.."

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Mother Tongue 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
rbryanm More than 1 year ago
a must-read for any lover of language. a must-read for any lover of english. a must-read for any lover of...(linguistics, anthropology, sociology, history, etc etc ad infinitum ad nauseum) simply...a must-read.
5hrdrive on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this highly entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud funny - for the first half of the book. Then for some reason it just seemed to go flat. Maybe it was just me.
drbubbles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
wirkman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An absolutely fascinating account of the origins and evolution of the English language. I was especially gratified to see that the author reminds us of a few wondrous-but-obscure words, such as one of my long-time favorites, "velleity."
lizzybeans11 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an incredibly nerdy book! For someone who has thought only a little about how language has developed, this is an easy read and quite humorous.I noticed some reviewers complained about inaccuracies, which I guess is a problem, but overall I think the book is just meant to be a fun look at language. I don't imagine that anyone is using this book in their scholarly research - unless they're using the bibliography only!
mjmorrison1971 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Words, we use them everyday but this books takes a look at why those ones, how they are changing, where they come from. For someone who just passed Yr 12 English this was a fascinating read that makes Language interesting.
kevinashley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson recounts the history and development of the english language, with a bit of humour thrown in to ease the journey.If I had to write a one-sentence summary of this book, that would be it. Inevitably, it's bit more complicated than that. If you are familiar with Bryson's work, the style here will be very familiar. He takes a wide view of the subject, but illustrates it selectively and takes a personal rather than scholarly view of the topic whilst still managing to be rigorous - to an extent. And he leavens it all with an irreverent view. It's never laugh-out-loud, and I don't think it's intended to be, but there's a good sprinkling of wry smiles and the writing style makes for very easy reading.He devotes the first two chapters to the evolution of langauge in general before beginning to tackle the emergence of English from around 450AD in chapter 3. Throughout the book he wanders into the greater realm of comparative linguistics to illustrate the ways in which English is either very like other languages, or dissimilar from them. If you are a serious student of this topic, there may not be much to learn here and you'll find some of the generalisations positively annoying, but you'll probably still enjoy it. For others it is likely to be much more rewarding.Even so, I felt mildly annoyed that, while he appears to take a very broad view of English against the background of language in general, Bryson seems too keen to defend it as something particularly special or elevated. His generalisations about what other languages are or are not capable of aren't always right and parts of the book - but only parts - seem to take a rather narrow view of English from the point of the US and the UK, the environments most familiar to him. His frequent disparaging remarks about Welsh are an example of this, and other reviewers have done a better job than I of showing how he can be both annoying and plain wrong about this and similar matters.But the descriptions of what can otherwise be difficult concepts, such as his analysis of the ways in which words change over time, are very accessible and he crams a lot of fascinating detail in here about such things as the influence of Norman French, the ways in which words become acceptable, then disreputable, then acceptable again over time, and sometimes false perceptions by others over what are and aren't Americanisms; and those are just a few examples.Overall an entertaining and often informative read, but hardly comprehensive. If you enjoy the aspects of the book that deal with langauge in a more general sense, I highly recommend David Crystal's Cambridge Encylopaedia of Language, or for that matter almost anything else by Crystal.
tonidew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bryson started with serious books on grammar and his expertise is put to good use in this book on the English language. Look out for Made in America too.
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Love reading about the evolution of words as well as language. Seen it first hand with Gay. My family used it to mean happy/joyful. I used it to mean queer/homosexual. My son uses it to mean dumb or stupid!
fnielsen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although reasonably well-written readers have made an effort to list the many factual errors of this book, so let me also try a few. In the index "Danish" has 5 items and I will comment on the three first. For the first item Bryson defines Danish word 'hygge' as meaning 'instantly satisfying and cosy'. Although not outright wrong I wouldn't use the word 'instantly'. In the second item Bryson writes "...a small corner of northern Germany, in the spur of land connecting Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark..." There is no land connecting Schleswig-Hostein to Denmark since they are directly connected. Third item: Bryson writes: ' Viking raiders from Scandinavia and Denmark'. Denmark is usually (always?) incorporated into Scandinavia.
jensgram on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting as all books by Bryson, although not his most entertaining publication.
shiunji on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
Intemerata on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
brianclegg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Bryson's writing and his enthusiasm for English is wonderful, as is his non-fussy exploration of where our language came from. Occasionally gets a little repetitious because of the subject, but otherwise great.
Janzz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting read though I picked up a couple of errors when he was talking about Australian English (being Australian myself)
DSD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
landofashes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thought-provoking and funny at the same time - a gem of a book, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to teach English.
doggie38 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another entertaining, informative book by Bill Bryson. Delves into the history of the English language in a way that is, entertaining, humourous and informative.
ColinFine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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
FrogPrincessuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable. Bill Bryson brings across dry (yet interesting) material in an entertaining and easy-to-read way.
BoundTogetherForGood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. I very much enjoy learning about language and what affects it and causes it to change. The differences between American and British English intrigue me and were discussed in this book, along with other things.
herschelian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.