Saturday, 2 October 2010
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.