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The Mother Tongue - English And How It Got That Way Paperback – October 23, 2001
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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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Top Customer Reviews
Although Amazon lists a 2015 publication date for the Kindle edition, this is clearly a much older book (most of the references and examples seem to be no more recent than the mid-80s) and seems to be one of Bryson's earliest publications. It lacks his usual superior scholarship combined with wit and clarity. I am not a linguistic expert as some reviewers here, but even I can detect that a lot of this is oversimplified, apocryphal, or simply wrong. Much of the book follows a pattern of making a statement about some foible of English followed by a long (often repetitive) list of examples. This does not really add up to either enlightenment or entertainment.
It would be a good subject for Bryson to revisit with a more rigorous and accurate approach.
I immediately purchased it and haven't regretted it once. This book is full of fun facts about English but also really does examine the ridiculous nature of the language from a linguistics point of view. That last part is surprising because he is not in fact a linguist!
It is light hearted fun but you will learn many things that you can impress your friends, or 92 year old grandfathers.
This book is not likely to be the most scholarly book ever written about the English language, but it will surely be among the most entertaining. And in the midst of being entertained, you'll likely learn a whole lot about the origins and evolution of the English language.
"The Mother Tongue" was the first Bill Bryson book I ever read. I still remember sitting in a food court at a mall, laughing myself silly. Every Bryson book since has affected me the same way. But this book is something of an anomaly: Bryson is best known for his wonderful, and hilarious, travel books. Not sure where this came from, but I'm very glad he wrote it.
I've read a number of books on the history of English, some of them no doubt better researched or more all-encompassing, but I've never read one that was more entertaining. If you have any interest in "English and how it got that way", buy this book!
My one criticism (which really isn't a criticism) is that the book is a bit dated. It appeared in the early 1990s before we really entered the Internet age and most of the examples comes from the 1980s and earlier. Obviously, everything in the book remains valid -- but the language has developed by leaps and bounds since then. We now communicate through texting, tweets and emoticons. I think there is a good case for this book to be updated.