Book review: ‘The Mother Tongue’

Bill Bryson’s book “The Mother Tongue” might properly be titled “The Treasure Trove.”

At least that’s is what it feels like to folks who love language.

Originally published in 1990 and now available as a handsome paperback, Bryson’s book is an endlessly fascinating celebration of the English language, loaded with cool details and covering just about every imaginable aspect of its subject:

How language first came about in humans; how kids acquire it; cognates (similar words in different languages, like “mother,” “madre” and “mere”); the ever-recurring struggles over whether certain countries should have a “national language” (you wouldn’t believe how ugly these fights have gotten over the years); the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Conquest; Shakespeare and Chaucer; doublets (similar English words descended from the same Latin base — like “frail” and “fragile,” or “hotel,” “hospital” and “hostel”); etymology (his examination of how we got the word “OK” is exhaustive, comical and intriguing); pronunciation; dialect; grammar (he’s especially good at busting on grammarians who are too picky or don’t observe their own rules); dictionaries; swearing; trademarks; names of places and people (take, for instance, Great Britain’s Sir Humphrey Doddington Benedict Sherston Sherston-Baker); the increasing global popularity of English (there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States); plus word play and games — including palindromes, anagrams, crosswords and Scrabble. (Did you know that the highest-scoring Scrabble game reached 3,881 points and featured the word “psychoanalyzing,” which tallied a whopping 1,539!)

Bryson especially is good at fomenting a hypnotic interest in mundane topics like spelling and parts of speech; and as you probably can guess from the sprawling paragraph above, “The Mother Tongue” is chock-full of tidbits culled from decades of research on the author’s part — all the more impressive for the fact that he accomplished this before online searches.

Here are a few of his fascinating factoids:

English semantics is so complicated that the Oxford English Dictionary spends 15,000 words just defining “what.” (“Set,” by contrast, has 194 meanings; its definition spans the length of a short novel.)

Similarly, our pronunciation is such a nightmare that the sound “ough” can be pronounced eight different ways (through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough and lough — a rare word related to “loch”).

St. Patrick wasn’t Irish but Welsh; he wound up in Ireland only after being kidnaped by pirates.

There are terms for the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (“arachibutyrophobia”) and for the sudden start you make after drifting into sleep (“myoclonic jerk”).

Many spellings are created by accident — “belfry” does not come from the word “bell,” nor is “bridegroom” derived from “bride” (and “asparagus” is a corruption of “sparrow-grass”).

The longest English word is a chemical compound with nearly 2,000 letters; as Bryson puts it, “I don’t know what it’s used for, though I daresay it would take some rubbing to get it out of the carpet”).

So yeah — the book is funny, too.

Indeed, for me it was so riotously entertaining that I kept reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen; and I promptly bought copies for three fellow English-teachers to enjoy on their upcoming summer break.

If you love language, I can’t think of a more entertaining book to bring along on one of those lazy July or August vacations.

Just don’t leave the chapter on swearing open where your teens can read it.

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