Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue

I’m not a huge fan of reading non-fiction for leisure unless it has a lot of humour or it’s insightful enough. That’s one of the reasons why I like reading Bill Bryson’s books. (Although I have to admit that after a few chapters of A Shorty History of Nearly Everything, I had to put the book away).

Mother Tongue is Bryson’s book about the English language. It’s a bit out of date as there isn’t a word in there about Internet, which is understandable since it was first published in 1990. Nevertheless, it’s still a great read and a must-have for all those people interested in language. It’s more or less my entire BA English degree summed-up in a nutshell and there’s a great array of examples to make it an entertaining read.

My favourite chapters were ‘English as a World Language’ and ‘Wordplay’. (And not the chapter ‘Swearing’ as I had anticipated when I first began reading the book.)

My first favourite chapter
In the chapter ‘English as a World Language’, there are hilarious examples of how English is used – or better to say, misused – around the world, due to wrongful translating. There are also examples on the borrowing of English words by other languages, and the fact that English is the most studied language in the world. Apparently there are more people learning English in China than there are people in the United States (and that was in 1990!).

I like that Bryson puts this into perspective as well: “The simple fact is that English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think (…) if you venture into almost any bookstore in Amsterdam or Antwerp or Oslo you will usually find only a small selection of books in English. For the most part, people still want to read works in their own language.”

My second favourite chapter
Then there’s the chapter ‘Wordplay’, which I found intriguing because I’m exceptionally bad at wordplay. While the whole world is busy playing WordFeud, I just look over other people’s shoulders because I simply can’t see any combination with the jumble of letters on the board. I’m in awe of those people who can.

I also love it when I hear of language jokes and wordplay that other people can come up with. When I hear a good anagram (“in which the letters of a word or name are jumbled to make a new, and ideally telling, phrase”), I try to remember it because I wouldn’t be able to think of it myself.

Two examples in Bryson’s book:
Funeral = real fun
Mother-in-law = woman Hitler

Mother-in-laws seem to be the butt of many jokes. There’s a Dutch equivalent (for the Dutch readers of the blog): Ik heb geen schoonmoeder, in heb een trouw-ma.

Another great wordplay described in the book is: “In addition to mangling words in amusing ways, something else we can do in English that they cannot always do in other languages is construct intentionally ambiguous sentences that can be taken in either of two ways (…) It’s called amphibology. An admirable example of this neglected art was Benjamin Disraeli’s airy note to an aspiring author: ‘Thank you so much for the book. I shall lose no time in readying it.’

I put myself in the part of the ‘aspiring author’ and think ouch.



3 thoughts on “Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue

  1. I have read and loved many Bill Bryson books. Humor is so important to me, as both a reader and a writer. The first Bryson book I read was “Neither Here Nor There”, and I could hardly believe it–it was almost like coming home.

  2. Oh my gosh, The Mother Tongue is one of my favorite books! Actually, I do read a lot of nonfiction and Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, even if it’s a little outdated. Funny how the Internet does that. 🙂

    1. ‘Down Under’ is my favourite Bill Bryson book. I actually laughed out loud at least once during every chapter. I was also reading it while travelling in Australia. I recommend everyone I know who goes to Australia to take it with them.

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