Book Club: Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue"

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson

History is fascinating, and language is fascinating…but the history of a language? Before I read Bill Bryson’s book, this felt like a bridge too far; I imagined page after page of medieval arguments about grammatical trivia.

In Bryson’s hands, though, the story of English becomes the story of England – and of much of the rest of the world. We watch as waves of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Jutes, and others crash onto English shores and leave their linguistic legacy. Later, it goes the other way, when England colonizes a third of the world and blends its language with a hundred others. The result: the largest, wildest, and perhaps most incorrigibly inconsistent language on Earth.

Bryson’s a wonderful storyteller – the kind of guy I’d sit and listen to for hours in a pub. He’s got a pocketful of storyteller’s gems, too:

  • The distinctive British pronunciations of words like “path” (pahth) and “bath” (bahth) are only a couple hundred years old. Back in Shakespeare’s day, Brits pronounced these words like Americans do today.
  • Many words have changed their meanings drastically over time – sometimes coming to signify the opposite of what they meant just a few centuries before. (This is part of what makes it hard to read old literature.) One surprising example: the word nice, which used to mean…well, not so nice.

I’ve read a lot of style guides recently, and most of them have strong views about how English should look and sound. Bill Bryson isn’t worried about most of these debates. Instead, he gets a kick out of the many magnificently weird ways people have put our language to use - and he knows that many more changes are on the way.