Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Bill Bryson. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1990.

Why read it? With a sense of humor, Bill Bryson explores the history and characteristics of the English language. He reveals a variety of facts and interesting stories about our language. Critics suggest that some of his facts and stories are without foundation, but he frequently gives the origin of those facts and stories by citing bibliographic information. Sometimes his language is a bit technical.

On one point he is emphatic: “But the people of the Near East, unlike those of the Far East, made an important leap in thought of almost incalculable benefit to us. They began to use their pictographs to represent sounds rather than things” (p. 117). And the Chinese and Japanese still use pictographs as part of their very complicated languages. Thank those people from the Near East for giving English many centuries later the alphabet.

He emphasizes the issues in English in plain English, for example, the problems with pronunciation and spelling, the problem of English idioms and foreign speakers, the many sources of American words, the significant differences in vocabulary between England and America, the stories behind names of all kinds in America, the origin of swear words and the great fun of word play from anagrams to crossword puzzles.

I think everyone in America should take a course in the history of the English language. And for those who can’t, this book, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, will do just as well. There will be times when you will not be able to put it down.

Some sample quotes:

“We have some forty sounds in English, but more than 200 ways of spelling them. We can render the sound sh in up to fourteen ways (shoe, sugar, passion, ambitious, ocean, champagne, etc.)….” p. 120. ………. “In Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post; in America, the postal service delivers the mail.” p. 177. ………. “Unlike American crosswords, which are generally straight forward affairs, requiring you merely to fit a word to a definition, the British variety are infinitely more fiendish, demanding mastery of the whole armory of verbal possibilities—puns, anagrams, palindromes, lipograms (text composed without a certain letter), or whatever else springs to the deviser’s devious mind.” Example: What is a famous city in Czechoslovakia? The answer? “Oslo” in Norway. Czechoslovakia. p. 225. ………. “By virtue of their brevity, dictionary definitions often fail to convey the nuances of English…. On the strength of dictionary definitions alone, a foreign visitor to your home could be excused for telling you that you have an abnormal child, that your wife’s cooking is exceedingly odorous, and that your speech at a recent sales conference was laughable, and intend nothing but the warmest praise.” p. 150.

“To explain the word ‘what’ to a foreigner—takes five pages in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).” ………. English probably is the richest vocabulary, the most diverse shading of meaning as any language. p. 68. ………. “…we have a strange—and to foreigners it must seem maddening—tendency to load a single word with a whole galaxy of meanings.” “Fine” has 14 definitions as an adjective, 6 as a noun, 2 as an adverb. “Set” has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, 10 as a participial adjective. The OED needs 60,000 words to discuss them all.” p. 69. ………. When the same word has contradictory meaning, it is a contronym. Sanction means permission and sanction means forbidding. Cleave means both to cut in half or stick together. p. 70. ………. English has more than 100 common prefixes and suffixes; can re-form words with facility not found in other languages. French mutin, “rebellion,” becomes in English, mutiny, mutinous, mutinously, mutineer. p. 80.

We tend to slur those names most familiar to us, particularly place names. Australia becomes “Stralia”; Toronto is “Tronna”; [Philadelphia is “Fluffia”]; Louisville is “Loovul”; Iowa is “Iwa.” p. 88. ………. “Rhymes too tell us much. We know from Shakespeare’s rhymes that knees, grease, grass, and grace all rhymed…and that clean rhymed with lane.” p. 94. ………. “Simeon Potter believes that English spelling possessed three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings: the consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes and so on—and above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so that people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.” p. 121.

And that is just a sampling of the interesting information you will find in The Mother Tongue. RayS.

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