Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, is an excellent guide and ‘insider look’ on the English language for anyone who has ever wondered WHY we say the things we do, and what they really mean.
Bill Bryson has an incredible knack for turning information that could be dry or just downright hard-to-understand (I refer to his description of the ‘bending of time’ in A Short History of Nearly Everything if you don’t believe me) into something that is not only interesting and witty, but actually…dare I say this, understandable.
Needless to say, I love language. Granted, I’m not a fabulous European who at the drop of a hat can change into a second, third or even fourth language, but damn, I wish I were. (I realise that you’re probably thinking that I could at least TRY, but then that would distract me from my overall goal of reading every book in the history of the world, see?) But there’s something about English, and all the weird quirks and intricacies about it that I love, and luckily for me, Bill Bryson has written WHY it has become that way in a neat package of about 250 words. Books, you’ve done it again.
Mother Tongue goes through the history of English, how it became ‘English’ as a matter of fact, why it is so different in different countries, and how it has ended up the way it is today – weird slang, spellings, irregular grammar and all.
While at times it was a bit slow, I personally loved reading about the evolution of slang and localised vocabulary, with everything from Cockney slang (‘chew the fat’ = ‘have a chat’ etc), to the bizarre way that New Yorkers say ‘cawwfeeee’ (I’ve never actually been to New York, so I’m basing that fact mostly on old Seinfeld episode).
Given that I’m somewhat of an English nerd, I also took particular delight in the chapter named ‘Word Games’ which went into legendary palindromes, lipograms and a personal favourite, anagrams. Because really, is there anything more entertaining than working out that ‘Mother in Law’ translates to ‘Woman Hitler’. No, there isn’t. So thank you Bill Bryson for giving me that particular word gem that I will start whipping out during conversation (though perhaps not while having dinner with Paul’s parents).
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the book was that it was written over 20 years ago, and therefore unfortunately didn’t go into the way that we now talk like we text, why on earth terms like ‘LOL’ became acceptable, and who the hell made it ok to routinely get ‘your’ and you’re’ mixed up on Facebook.
If you’re not an English fan this probably isn’t the book for you. However, if you did want to understand why Edward turns into Ned, or why the heck the French have it in for English so much, then Mother Tongue may just be the book for you.