Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Look! It's not related to Tam Lin!

I finally finished The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. I'd been putting it off to read other things, but then I started The Worm Ouroboros and so had to read something to put that off, and there you have it. I always have to be procrastinating on something.

The Mother Tongue is hilarious; it's subtitle rather says it all: "English and how it got that way," the story of the English language, its history, its place in the world. It's a funny story to begin with, but Bill Bryson makes it funnier because you know he's always amused. The book outlines the development of language in general and the history of English in particular, including its vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling, has chapters on dialects, proper English usage, dictionaries, American vs. British English, swearing, word games, and the future of the language. The funniest chapters, which were what really got me through to the end and which I couldn't help but read aloud (my mother finally told me to stop so I had to just stop reading), were those on English's effect on other languages and English names. Some of the funniest examples of English words being borrowed into other languages are things like Japanese for a suit, being "sebiro," which comes from "Savile Row," and then of course the French, when they want to get a bit tan, go to the beach for "le bronzing" and a German book that doesn't quite make the best-seller lists is "ein steadyseller." The chapter on names is fascinating; it goes through the odd tendency of British place and family names to be pronounced nothing like they're spelled (and, if there are two places with the same name, for these to be pronounced differently in each place and neither like it's spelled), hilarious place names in general, unusual British pub names, surnames. The British place names, of course, are mostly hilarious just because they sound funny, but imagine living in Fertile, Minnesota; Humptulips, Washington; or Maggie's Nipples, Wyoming.

In short, The Mother Tongue is a very well-written (one always hopes so in a book on language), informative, and concise book, which you can't possibly read without bursting to tell someone some of the things you've learned.

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