November 23, 2012

I just read a good book by Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. If you know any of Bryson’s many books, you are familiar with his amusingly authoritative take on the world. His style borders on conversational but carries a lot of information and frequent flashes of humor. The history of English is a fairly complicated story, and Bryson makes it considerably less complicated by skimming fairly rapidly over the first thousand years, namely Old and Middle English. He has good things to say about this part of the story, but rightly judged that most readers would have great trouble reading examples in the original, so he focuses on words that have stayed the same all this time, like hand (also many vulgarities).

Bryson is at his best talking about the language since Shakespeare’s time. There are chapters on etymology, spelling, changes in pronunciation, dictionaries, usage, swearing, names, and slang that are both informative and quite amusing, causing me to laugh out loud every page or two. The chapter on names is especially interesting. The book has been criticized for some errors (particularly about the deficiencies of other languages) and lack of expertise in linguistics (an extremely complicated discipline), but Bryson presents an entertaining account of the language that anyone looking for an introduction to the topic should enjoy. He cites well-known authorities in many places and provides a good list of basic references. An easy read on a complex subject.

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