The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson is an exploration of the history, evolution, and current state of the English language. Bryson blends humor with historical research and linguistics to examine many of the peculiarities of English dialects, pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and syntax. He establishes three themes throughout the book: the role of English in the world, the history of English, and the evolution of language.
Bryson begins by tracing the roots of English back to its Germanic origins, when Angles and Saxons began migrating to and conquering the Roman province of Britannia in the mid-5th century CE.
Old English was a rich literary language, leaving behind a trove of letters, charters, religious works, and legal texts. Old English also absorbed syntax and grammatical structure from Old Norse, a testament to the language’s fluidity, even at this early stage in its development.
By 1640, there were over 20,000 titles available in English, more than there had ever been. As printed works produced by London printers began to spread across the country, local London spelling conventions gradually began to supplant local variations.
What this also meant was that old spellings became fixed just as many word pronunciations were shifting because of the Great Vowel Shift. Our inheritance is a written language with many words spelled the way they were pronounced 400 years ago.
No writer took greater advantage of the incredible flexibility and richness of the English language than Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon alone added some 2,000 words to the language, such as mimic, bedroom, lackluster, hobnob.
He also introduced a host of new phrases we still use today, like “one fell swoop” and “in my mind’s eye.” Shakespeare greatly elevated and exalted the English language.
The book concludes with a look at the future of English, and how it will continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of its speakers. Bryson argues that English is a living language, and that it will continue to be shaped by its users.
What I Liked
I loved that Bill Bryson took on linguistics as a book topic. Linguistics 1101 was one of my favorite classes in college – and definitely the one with the largest difference between way I expected and what it actually was.
Like Bryson found At Home, it’s ironic that we pay so little attention to facets of our daily life – especially something so fundamental as the language that we speak to one another. Everyone takes language for granted, but it’s something that literally shapes how we think and how we relate to each other.
What I Did Not Like
Not a whole lot – it’s a fast, funny read.