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The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way Paperback – October 23, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Who would have thought that a book about English would be so entertaining? Certainly not this grammar-allergic reviewer, but The Mother Tongue pulls it off admirably. Bill Bryson--a zealot--is the right man for the job. Who else could rhapsodize about "the colorless murmur of the schwa" with a straight face? It is his unflagging enthusiasm, seeping from between every sentence, that carries the book.

Bryson displays an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic, and this inevitably encourages a light tone; the more you know about a subject, the more absurd it becomes. No jokes are necessary, the facts do well enough by themselves, and Bryson supplies tens per page. As well as tossing off gems of fractured English (from a Japanese eraser: "This product will self-destruct in Mother Earth."), Bryson frequently takes time to compare the idiosyncratic tongue with other languages. Not only does this give a laugh (one word: Welsh), and always shed considerable light, it also makes the reader feel fortunate to speak English.

From Publishers Weekly

Bryson's blend of linguistic anecdotes and Anglo-Saxon cultural history proves entertaining but superficial. "While his historical review is thorough. . . he mostly reiterates conventional views about English's structural superiority," said PW. "He retells old tales with fresh verve . . . but becomes sloppy when matters of rhetoric and grammar arise."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reissue edition (1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380715430
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380715435
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (377 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,904 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

611 of 673 people found the following review helpful By Whimemsz on August 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is certainly amusing. It's very enjoyable for a novice to read.

But, as many others have pointed out, every page is just error after factual error. Bryson simply does not understand how languages work, and whatever his sources are are frequently wrong. My favorite mistake is when he claims that in Finnish, there is only one swear word, ravintolassa, meaning "in the restaurant" (page 214). Now, ravintolassa DOES mean "in the restaurant," but that's ALL it means. Finnish has plenty of native swear words (saatana, perkele, vittu, jumalauta, and more), and I still cannot imagine how Bryson came to the conclusion that, not only did it have only one, but that it was the word for "in the restaurant." It's truly mind-boggling.

Among my other favorite errors are when he says that "Estimates of the number of languages in the world usually fix on a figure of about 2,700" (page 37; all estimates I've ever seen generally give between 5,000 and 6,000). Or when he completely misunderstands the concept of case affixes when discussing Finnish (page 35; he seems to think that the various words created are utterly unanalyzable to the speakers. By analogy, then, English speakers would need to learn the plural word "cats" separately from the singular "cat," rather than simply extending their knowledge of the plural suffix -s to the word "cat." Bryson fails to make the rather important distinction between "word" and "root").

He also buys the extremely controversial arguments of people like Merritt Ruhlen and presents them as complete fact ("Recent studies of cognates...
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127 of 136 people found the following review helpful By ted maul on August 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
Sadly I must concur with many fellow-reviewers: the numerous important errors that plague an otherwise worthwhile and entertaining book mean you can never be sure when to trust the author's assertions. Bryson's undoubted communicative flair has clearly enthused many lay-readers about language, and that is a heartening sign. His vigorous debunking of bogus so-called language pundits (Safire, Simon, et al.) is also to be welcomed (see Steven Pinker's 'Language Instinct' for an equally enjoyable slaying of the 'language mavens').
All this makes the book's flaws all the more exasperating and disappointing. They range from the trivial to the quite breath-taking - I won't list them all here, as other reviewers have already highlighted many of them (eg. The French can't distinguish between 'mind' and 'brain'... hmm, I hope he's used some of the proceeds from this book to invest in a French dictionary - and an Italian one, and Finnish...)
What I will point out are the gaps in his grammatical understanding: I'm not talking about arcane, abstruse, pedantic points here, but the fundamentals of grammar, what it is, and how we use and describe it. Almost half an entire chapter (where he discusses the categorisation of words into various parts of speech, and verbs into tenses) can and should be junked. He seems to think the terms and concepts we use to categorise English grammar are absurd, constrictive and inappropriate, merely because they are greco-latin in origin. For example, he doesn't see the need for the dual categorisation of -ing words as both 'gerunds' and 'present participles'; but this redounds to his discredit, no-one else's. These terms merely describe a distinction that we all observe whether we're conscious of it or not.
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461 of 526 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Culver TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
Bill Bryson's book MOTHER TONGUE has an admirable goal, to present the evolution and current state of the English language in a simple and intriguing fashion. However, it is a book full of factual errors. On nearly every page this is an urban myth, folk etymology, or misunderstanding of linguistics.

Bryson writes charming travelogues - The Lost Continent is a book I'd recommend to any foreigner wanting to learn about rural America - but he is an amateur with an interest in wordplay and not a professional linguist. Much of the book appears to have been thrown together from older books on language for the popular reader, especially those of Otto Jespersen, Mario Pei, and Montagu, which themselves have been criticised for errors and oversimplications.

The errors of the book astound from the start any reader with the slighest knowledge of language. Bryson speaks of the Eskimos having a multitude of words for snow, though this urban myth causes linguists to shudder and has been soundly debunked in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Bryson goes on to say that Russian has no words for "efficiency", "engagement ring", or "have fun", a preposterous statement that can be proved wrong by any Russian speaker. His knowledge of British history is also shaky, as he asserts that the Saxon invaders eliminated entirely the former Celtic inhabitants, but in reality they merely imposed their language and Britons now remain essentially the same people genetically as 4,000 years ago.
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