The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson, is one of those books that you might think would be a slog — but you’d be mistaken. It is a jaunt through the history of English as a language: accents; spelling; sentence structure; regionalisms; the essence of language evolution. Bryson guides the reader through understanding etymologies, how sound effects spelling (and vice-versa), how people’s names came to be.
So many topics are covered in this volume, it’s hard to know where the strong point of the book is. The weak point of the text is that it was published in 1990 (my copy is of the 41st printing!), and so all of the studies and reference works are a couple of decades out of date. This does not make the material presented any less valid, however.
- Have you ever wondered why sticking your tongue out and blowing is called a raspberry? You can thank the Cockneys for that. (Hint: it rhymes with “raspberry tart.”)
- How about why the British use the word “autumn,” while Americans use the word “fall?” (It turns out that the British used to use the word “fall,” but it fell out of fashion…)
- Did you realize that the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon was personally responsible for providing the English language with countless words, including the word “countless” itself?
All these questions, and hundreds more you never thought to ask, are answered within the book’s pages. Get hold of a copy of The Mother Tongue. Your efforts will be rewarded.