Customer Reviews: The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way
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on August 6, 2003
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. When we hear 'My favourite hobby is swimming' we automatically understand that this does not mean 'my favourite hobby is currently doing a length of the pool'. Likewise, we know that 'I am swimming' doesn't mean 'I am the very act of propelling oneself through a body of water'.
The terms we use to describe grammar are precisely that - descriptive, not prescriptive, and have stood the test of time because they are versatile, adaptable, enable clear, precise thought and explanation when analysing linguistic constructions, and facilitate comparative study of different language structures.
But Bryson's heart is in the right place, and if people who read this book are inspired to widen their language/linguistics-related reading, that can only be a good thing.
Allow me to recommend a couple of other books as essential further reading:
'The Language Instinct' Steven Pinker
'The Power of Babel' John McWhorter
Engaging, not to say captivating, works - ideal for the layperson but packed with real linguistic meat and serious scholarly endeavour nonetheless.
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on August 17, 2005
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...have found possible links between some of those must unlikely language parteners: for instance, between Basque and Na-Dene...and between Finnish and Eskimo-Aleut. No one has come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how a language spoken only in a remote corner of the Pyrenees could have come to influence Indian languages of the New World, but the links between many cognates are too numerous to explain in terms of simple coincidence" -- page 24). There hardly exists a serious linguist in the world who would agree with that statement.

And of course there is the famous "Eskimo" Words for Snow Myth, which results in large part from a total misunderstanding of the nature of polysynthetic languages (page 14).

Unfortunately, many of the errors Bryson makes are much harder to catch, in that they involve concepts (such as his apparent conviction that English is somehow unique among languages in its expressiveness and form...he also ironically says on page 17 that "most books on English imply in one way or another that our language is superior to all others"), rather than factual claims, since incorrect facts are easier to refute.

Throughout the book, Bryson repeatedly makes these types of inexcusable factual and conceptual errors, and as a result paints an inaccurate and deceptive picture of languages and linguistics in general. For this reason, I take issue with the reviewers who say that what matters is that the book is entertaining negates its errors. On the contrary, the entire point of the book is to tell the story of the English language, and Bryson, as a good writer who knows how to inject good humor into his work, makes it funny. But a the true purpose remains to educate people, and it fails miserably in this respect, and as a result, it fails as a whole. Adding humor cannot make a bad book into a good one.
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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.

Every reader who speaks another language besides English will find a most annoying mistake in THE MOTHER TONGUE. For me, once a speaker of Esperanto, it was Bryson's ridiculous summary of the language. He begins by misspelling the name of the language's initiator. Then he asserts that the language has no definite articles - it does - but then gives a sample of the language in which this definite article he just denied is used twice (and misspelled once).

These are only a few examples, the book is filled with multitudes more.

While the birth and growth of the English language is a fascinating subject, it's a shame that it is spoiled in MOTHER TONGUE by an abundance of errors. If you are interested about how English got the way it is today, I'd recommend trying another book, one preferably written by someone with a degree in linguistics.
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on October 28, 2001
It is unfortunate that Bill Bryson writes so entertainingly, because the book's content is disastrously bad. The book is replete with elementary errors of fact. Many of these can be detected with nothing more than a good dictionary: 'law' and 'order' are not synonyms, 'swarthy' is not from Latin 'sordere', and 'bumf' is not from a non-existent German 'bumfodden' but from the self-explanatory British 'bum-fodder' (toilet paper). Others are equally elementary: for instance, the High German sound shift took place in the south of Germany, not the north.
He fares no better when he deals with more technical matters. He loves to count inflectional forms of words in different languages, but most of his counts are wrong. His history of the alphabet from Old to Present-Day English is riddled with errors of fact. His treatment of the sounds of English is hopelessly confused because he fails completely to distinguish phones from phonemes; indeed, he seems to confuse at least one of these with the graphs used to represent them. His discussion of the Great Vowel Shift, a fundamental change that explains many of the apparent oddities of modern English spelling, is partly wrong and wholly confusing.
Hard as it is to excuse such cavalier treatment of the facts, it is even harder to excuse his logical inconsistencies and muddy thinking. On the one hand, 'To a baby no language is easier or more difficult than any other'; on the other, Old English was so complicated that '[i]t is a wonder that anyone ever learned to speak it'. At one point he lists 'Celtic' as a European language that disappeared over time, and in the very next sentence he avers that 'Celtic ... is not dead'. (He appears to have confused languages with language families.) In comparing modern English spelling to that of Old English he applies a double standard in order to make modern spelling seem more arbitrary than it really is. And one wonders what distinction between 'hair' and 'hairs' made in Shakespeare's 'Shee hath more haire than wit, and more faults than hairs' is 'effectively lost to us today'.
But the errors are not the book's worst feature. Bryson returns again and again to three themes: (1) English is in most respects superior to all other languages, partly because (2) complex inflectional systems are BAD, and (3) English spelling is almost completely chaotic. He has moments of moderation in which he qualifies these assertions, even at one point denying the first altogether, but they are far less memorable than the polemics supporting them, and it is noteworthy that many of his errors and misleading statements reinforce these same themes.
Bryson's linguistic chauvinism is appalling. The English range of sounds is 'pleasingly' diverse, but Anglo-French was 'harsh, clacking, guttural'. 'Italians cannot distinguish between a niece and a granddaughter'? Of course they can. And to say that the meaning of German 'Schadenfreude' 'perhaps tells us as much about Teutonic sensitivity as it does about their neologistic versatility' is simply insulting. One is not greatly surprised to find that the index has an entry for 'English, advantages of' but none for 'English, disadvantages of'. One can also discover that while foreign words and phrases are 'adopted' into English, English words and phrases are 'expropriated' into other tongues.
A reader searching for a readable elementary introduction to the history of the English language would be much better off with Charles Barber's _The English Language: A Historical Introduction_.
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on February 26, 2006
Sorry for not being as enthusiastic as the other readers but I have many doubts about the reliability of this book. I agree there are many interesting and funny anecdotes, that the story of the English language described is captivating and so on. But as a native French speaker, I noticed that almost each time he writes about the French language that's absolute rubbish !

Let's have an overview :

p3 : '[...]The French for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman [...]'.

Hey Bill, if it's too hard for you to check in a dictionary I can tell you the difference between 'une maison, une residence, un bâtiment' and 'un foyer, un chez-soi' or between 'esprit' and 'cerveau' or between 'un homme' and 'monsieur, or even gentleman'.

p5/6 : '[...]French must manage with 'je chante', we can say 'I sing', or 'I do sing', or 'I am singing'.

Even if I prefer the English way of saying that I can also say 'je chante vraiment', 'je suis en train de chanter'...

p7 : [...] while the French call lice 'Spaniards [...]'.

Where have you found this stupidity ? I've never heard that before !

p7 : [...] To be bored to death in French is 'être de Birmingham' literally 'to be from Birmingham' [...]

Once again where have you found this idiocy ?! I've asked to all the Frenchmen around me and no one knew it. Perhaps you got it from the only Frenchman you know who has been bored to death in Birmingham for 10 years....

p67 : [...] For instance , the French do not use [...] or R.S.V.P. for répondez s'il vous plaît. (Instead they write :'Prière de répondre.').

Hum, let me check my paperwork R.S.V.P, R.S.V.P., R.S.V.P.,... Damn I cannot find any 'Prière de répondre'. Did you invent that one also ?

p179 : [...] in France [...] an alloman is a switchboard operator [...]

Hang on man, you're on the wrong line. I can invent a new one for you if you want : 'fantasyman'.

p179 : [...] so that in France a jerk is an accomplished dancer.

I've been dancing for years now and never used or heard that one !

p210 : In French it is a grave insult to call someone a cow or a camel and the effect is considerably intensified if you precede it with espèce de ('kind of') [...]

I wouldn't say it's a GRAVE insult ! Even less preceded by 'espèce de'. Espèce de menteur !

So here are the examples I picked up, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same for the other languages and even for the English language. Imagine now my feeling as I was reading this book. Each time I learnt a point of history, grammar or vocabulary or I was amused by an anecdote I thought "hang on, is it again something Bill invented to sell his book, is it again a non-verified piece of information ?". Despite all the books he wrote I think this guy should go (back ?) to a school of journalism...

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on July 7, 2004
This book is a quick read -- entertaining and light -- but no one should trust the facts that are tossed around in it. Bryson's knowledge of languages other than English is shaky at best, and he makes countless mistakes in his various attempts at translation. He also has a very superficial understanding of grammar (as evinced by Chapter 9). On p. 142, he claims that petroleum has both Latin and Greek roots, "(Latin petro + Greek oleum)," but it is the opposite: petra is Greek and oleum is Latin. Not a big deal of course, but this book is literally peppered with inaccuracies such as this one. I wish someone had fact-checked this book, because it could have been a valuable tool. As it is, the information is often imprecise, or just plain wrong.
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on January 26, 1999
I'm a junior in high school and picked up this book because I have a huge love for words, writing, and the English language. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found Bryson to be very witty and entertaining. After reading many of the reviews here, I realized that some of the information may not be exactly correct, but it was still excellent in its context. Maybe Bryson could publish another edition with the corrections mentioned from your reviews. This would be extremely beneficial. Many of my friends stereotyped the book as "a boring history of English" before they ever read it. But after presenting them with a few of the humourous passages, they were delighted and begged me to loan them the book. I decided that if people could be excited about a book just because it was funny and yet learn so much about their mother tongue, it should be required reading. My favorite part was learning how some of the curious idioms of America came about. I had never heard of Cockney rhyming slang, and found it absolutely delightful. Well, as for myself I give it five stars, with or without the mistakes. Are we not all human?
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This book consists of a series of essays about various aspects of English. On the whole, the book is well-balanced between describing British and North American varieties of English. The writing style is quite fluid and the book is, for the most part, very enjoyable to read. However, Bryson was not always careful about the quality of his scholarship; he often gets his facts confused or repeats "factoids" that are known to be false. On page 14, for instance, he makes reference to the old Eskimo snow vocabulary myth, claiming that Eskimos have 50 words for snow (see The Great Eskimo Snow Hoax for a more accurate account). On p. 107 he manages to associate the Martha's Vineyard pronunciation research with Trudgill instead of Labov. Since he makes so many errors, a reader can't tell for certain whether the remaining material is trustworthy. Readers of this book may find themselves more misinformed than informed.
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on September 29, 1999
Although the book has some entertaining segments, the severity of the errors in it makes me wonder just what the author considers research. The chapter on swearing claims that Finnish has no swearwords, and that Finns have therefore chosen the word "ravintolassa", meaning "in the restaurant", for use as an obscenity. This is utterly ridiculous. A professional should have kept in mind that native speakers of the less widespread languages of the world enjoy comic relief by teaching foreigners nonsense words as swearwords, and obscene phrases as confessions of love. Even as a second-language speaker of English, I found flaws in his depictions of dialects, flaws which many reviewers have cited before me. The author seems to have researched his book with a beer in hand, never bothering to double-check any of his information. If viewed as fiction, this book has its moments. Fact it is not.
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on December 26, 2005
I enjoyed reading this book a lot. The subject is interesting, and Bryson is a fine writer. That being said, the book really is just a long ramble. I couldn't tell you exactly what Bryson was trying to say about English, what his premise was or where he was trying to go. The book is basically a loose collection of anecdotes and fun-facts about English, with some about other languages thrown in for the purpose of contrast. I also know for a fact that some of his factual assertions are flat wrong. Now on the whole I didn't care, because I enjoyed the book with all its flaws. I feel obligated, however, to take off one star for the book's aimlessness and another star for the factual errors. That leaves three stars. I still recommend buying the book because it's a fun read. If you like Bryson's writing -and it's hard not to- then buy and enjoy this.
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