Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson

Ever since Bill Bryson's 1990 love letter to the English language became a snazzy orange Penguin Classic I've been meaning to give it a read. Last weekend, between meeting family and catching up with friends, I had a lot of commuting time to give it a read and finally finished it over the Easter break. Having read it I've written some of my thoughts on it, in what will be the first, and perhaps last, Lozguistics book review.

There are some observations about this book that need to be shared straight up. Firstly, this is not so much a book about English as a global language as it is about English as a British and American language. True, you can't really talk about the history of English or its rise to global popularity without mentioning these guys a lot, but English speakers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a score of other places might feel themselves to be somewhat under-represented. Secondly, this book is now the age of a fully licensed driver in Australia (21 years) and occasionally it shows. English in Asia is treated as an amusing curio, and it would be hard to say today that India as trying to distance itself from English these days as it's become the major identifier of the aspirational classes.

If you're looking for an amusing collection of anecdotes held together by Bryson's trademark wit and enthusiasm then Mother Tongue a great casual read. However there are a few things that rankled while I was reading.

The first is that Bryson falls into the trap of equating the different orthographic conventions of other languages with their difficulty. Sure, Gaelic languages have some very different spelling to English, but I'm sure that with five minutes and a conversion list you'd be doing ok. There are a lot more complicated things in life than remembering that for Irish Gaelic speakers 'w' is pronounced more like 'oo.'

Secondly, there are quite a few factual errors. He falls prey to the Eskimo snow hoax (the completely unfacual assertion that there are a zillion words for snow in Eskimo), refers to Tasmaina's indigenous languages as still being spoken when the last speaker died over a century ago. The couple of paragraphs on Australian English in the whole book are riddled with errors, the worst of which being the Bryson claims we prefer the word 'cookie' to 'biscuit' - you only have to ask the average Australian to see that he's wrong (unsurprisingly, his book about Australia 'Down Under' was written a decade later than Mother Tongue).

While the book is still an enjoyable read, once you spot a few errors it's hard to believe everything that's said. If he clearly doesn't know what he's speaking about when it comes to Australians how do I know that he's telling the truth about the Scottish?

Despite what I felt about these things, if you're looking for a fun read about English and don't want to be faced with any linguistic terminology then Mother Tongue is still an excellent read and stands above many of the books out there today. I wish I had a better memory so that I could use all of his excellent anecdotes about word origins, spelling conventions and word-play as my own. It's no surprise that it has become a Penguin Classic and will entertain for years still.

1 comment:

  1. After reading the book I became a bit suspicious, too, and I agree with Lauren in many respects since e.g. as a native Finnish speaker I was astonished to read that Finns and Estonians can communicate freely in their respective mother tongues, which is absolutely not true.