Saturday, 2 October 2010

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

When I was at university as an undergraduate completing my psychology degree, I took two modules in the history and development of the major languages of the world.  From that moment on, I've been hooked.  If that wasn't enough of a reason to read this history of the English Language, I also spend a considerable amount of time teaching children to read and write, and sharing their frustration when you can't just 'sound out' every word in English.  Plus, I love Bryson.

Synopsis: A potted history of the English language, from its early development to its evolution to British and American English.

Score: 4 out of 5.

This was an entertaining, easy to read book.  As always, Bryson has a talent for making quite complex subjects and explainions clear and easy to understand.  Although the book did go into quite a bit of detail, it never felt dry or stuffy.  More academic chapters were interspersed with chapters on the history of swearing and amusing anecdotes.  My favourite was from the chapter on names - a street in London that was famous for prostitutes was once called 'Gropecunt Lane'.

I thought Bryson was especially strong when explaining just why English has become one of the trickiest languages to learn (aside from non-alphabetic languages like Chinese).  It was interesting to see how each of the peoples that invaded or migrated to England added a little something to the language, resulting in a bit of a mixing pot of all different spelling patterns and sounds.  I also found it interesting that in Elizabethan times, most words were said exactly as they are spelt now - for example there was no silent 'k' in know, knee etc.  And the classicly posh British accent wasn't around until well into the 18th century - so all those Elizabethan costume dramas are competely off the mark!

I was always going to love this book as I'm interested in the subject matter and have read a lot on it before.  I think it serves as a good general introduction and is entertaining enough to be enjoyable to most.


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog Sam. I'm now a follower of yours as well. I love Shopaholic! I think Becky is one of the greatest characters.

  2. Sounds interesting. I'm going to check it out!

  3. English is weird-- I tell students that all the time-- some spellings just don't make sense.

    I want to read this-- this topic has always intrigued me. Funny about the not silent letters. Did you k-now that I hurt my k-nee? hahahahhaha

  4. @Cozy Book Nook (Lesa)
    Yes, English is definitely a bizarre language. And my job would be a lot easier if it just naturally had phonetic spellings.

    Hope you manage to read the book and enjoy it :)

  5. This was my first exposure to Bryson (in high school scores of years ago) and the book still sits proudly on my shelves. Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. @Kristen
    Hi Kristen,

    My first exposure to Bryson was 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' and it's still my favourite. I've never read a bad book by him though, he's just so readable.


  7. I've only recently read reviews of Bryson and am interesting in picking something up. Do you have a suggestion on what to start with?

  8. @Teresa
    Hi Teresa,

    It depends on what kinds of books you enjoy. My favourite Bryson is "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which is about science. If that's not your thing, all of his travel books are interesting to read - pick the one about the country you live in!