Bryson, Bill: Mother Tongue, The

Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue is the first of his non-travel books, and one of two about the English language (Made in America is the other). Like the rest of his books, this was perfect before-bed reading: interesting and amusing, to clear my mind, but not much in the way of narrative drive, to keep me awake too long.

Nearly every page of this book has something good on it, that I want to write down or tell someone about. Just the first chapter includes: a Danish word that means “instantly satisfying and cozy,” hygge (anyone know how to pronounce that? I think we need to adopt it); a “Highlands Scottish” (Scots Gaelic?) word for “the habit of dropping in at mealtimes,” sgiomlaireachd; and an introductory discussion of why English is so flippin’ hard. This last was very relevant this week, as I did paper-torture with an intern at work: some things I could explain, or hand over photocopies from Woe Is I and The Elements of Style, but for a few, I had to resort to, “I’m sorry I can’t adequately explain why this is wrong. Just trust me.” Flipping through later chapters, I’ve lighted on the assertion that Shakespeare created approximately 1,700 words; a mention of a Broadmoor inmate’s tens of thousands contributions to the original OED; and a discussion of the British crossword which reminds me why I just skip past most of the Wimsey short story “Uncle Meleager’s Will.”

If you’re reading this, you obviously care at least somewhat about language. Therefore, you ought to read this book. Go on, I’ll still be here when you get back.


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  1. My only problem with Bryson is that his threshold for rigor differs from mine. He is entertaining, though, and someone ought to write about words for non-specialist audiences…. (Yes, audiences plural.)

  2. Yes, I’m not really equipped to say how much rigor he brings to the topic. His books appear to be well-researched, and whenever he says “oh by the way, X thing that everyone claims isn’t really so,” it gives me the feeling that he knows lots about what he’s talking about–but I imagine for someone who knows a lot about the subject, the effect is much like my watching _Law and Order_ episodes.

  3. The Scandinavian “y” sound is very much unlike any sound in English. It’s related to u-umlaut in German, and the ue in the French rue, but pronounced even further to the front of the mouth, and with the lips pursed even more. If I was a linguist, I could tell you more.

    Not being a Dane, I would pronounce the word [hard h][ue in rue, but short and stressed][hard g, not toning][hard short e, stressed less, but still stressed]

  4. (Another very late comment from Dr. Dave…)

    Greythistle nailed it: Bryson lacks rigor. I had heard good things about this book, and I tried to read it, but after about the fifth time Bryson presented as fact something that I know is either false or hotly disputed, I gave up.

    Counter-recommendation: if you want a book along these lines, an erudite partisan paean to the English language, I strongly recommend Richard Claiborne’s Our Marvelous Native Tongue. Long out of print, I’m afraid, but still unmatched. Claiborne’s at least honest when he disagrees with the professionals (e.g. concerning the location of the homeland of Proto-Indoeuropean), and why. He’s also a more entertaining writer, at least to my eye.

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