Nerdy Book Reviews: The Mother Tongue

I’m going to have to have to hit the ground running with this review in terms of describing its author, Bill Bryson. Bryson is a writer you either know or you don’t, and you either love or you don’t. He’s written nonfiction books galore, and his favorite topic is travel, although culture, science, and language are frequent topics too.

I read his book A Walk in the Woods almost a decade ago, more or less by accident. That book detailed Bryson’s attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail with no training and little preparation. If that sounds boring, well, it wasn’t. Bryson has a way of illuminating both the most important and the most ridiculous aspects of any topic, and I realized that if an account of a cranky out-of-shape man taking a really long walk could not only keep my interest but make me laugh, I was hooked.

The Mother Tongue, whose title refers to the English language itself, was my second Bryson book, and it was required reading for a college writing course I was taking. And I have to agree with my professor, whose name and face both elude me now: if you’re a writer, you have to read this book. It’s the most detailed and interesting look at the weird language that many of us call home I’ve ever read. And I’m pretty sure reading it then (and re-reading it a few times since) has made me a better writer.

The book’s introduction can be a little off-putting, so let that be a warning especially to anyone for whom English isn’t a first language. I think the intro, which details the many ways in which English has become “the universal language,” is surely meant to justify the existence of the book itself; since English is so important, Bryson felt compelled to write a book about it. But, in a manner that can only be described as “Brysonian,” he also tries to inspire feelings of pride that our scrappy little cobbled-together language managed to triumph over so many others. In doing so, he does deride some other languages and their speakers. That’s because Bryson stomps through each book the way he did the Appalachian Trail.

I can’t imagine that a reader wouldn’t learn at least something new from this book. Even when I read it back in college I already knew some of the things Bryson touches upon, including the fact that it’s Latin’s fault that we have so many awkward and unnecessary rules thrust upon our mother tongue. Seemingly minor issues such as regional American accents and slang get put under the microscope as well. As an East Coaster with a weird combination of New York and DC-area speech patterns, I have spent more than a decade repeating Bryson’s assertion that the eastern seaboard’s accent could be due to the fact that the early colonists had the closest connection to England. Is it true? It’s impossible to say. But this English Breakfast Tea-drinking easterner likes to think so.

The chapters concerning English’s emergence from the other fledgling Germanic languages of the day, and the slow process by which it became recognizable as modern English, are fascinating. The disorganized stumbling by which pronunciation, spelling, structure, and syntax were changed and refined were the ones that actually inspired the most pride in this native English-speaker. Just as with any other historical topic, it’s both thrilling and terrifying to look back at how precarious so many things were along the way. While it’s tough to imagine things turning out other than they did, you look back and don’t see how they ever managed to do so.

It’s important to note that this book came out in 1990, and if there’s been a new edition, I haven’t read it. Therefore, newfangled inventions such as the Internet are conspicuously absent. This is irrelevant for much of the book, since it’s largely a history lesson, but I would love to see Bryson’s take on the current world culture of English. Also, his final chapter, “The Future of English” is adorably naive. Honestly, if Bryson was concerned about the declining quality of English being spoken 22 years ago, his head must be downright exploding over that gets written on the Internet today. Seriously, lawl.

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5 replies on “Nerdy Book Reviews: The Mother Tongue”

My Dad introduced me to Bryson and I love his books. He has a great one on Shakespeare that focuses on actual evidence as opposed to the myths and hearsay that is the majority of of what most people know about him.

I really loved the Mother Tongue although he does tend to let his lists meander on far too long, in my opinion.

Bill Bryson is a brilliantly funny, erudite, and very entertaining writer. His book about travelling in Australia, Down Under is one of my very favourites.

but… I didn’t like Mother Tongue. As someone with a linguistics background, I felt like he got a lot of things wrong and glossed over the facts in pursuit of amusement.
I’d recommend David Crystal instead.

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