Something about English.
Bill Bryson's 1990 etymological opus The Mother Tongue explores the English language from its earliest beginnings up to the "present." Such an academic text would normally pose a dauntingly boring threat to the average reader. Learning the origin of language and the effects of it on others around the world is not every one's chosen hobby, but the brilliance in Bryson's writing is that he uses his classic wry wit to keep even the least momentous chapters moving along. The historical sections, especially those exploring how English developed from German, Norse, Gaelic, Welsh and French dialects all converging on the British continent can drag, delving deeply into pages of listed words and examples with a brutally plodding pace. As with any good lecture, even the most fluid and exciting topic can bore in the details. These, though, are rarities.
Three of the last 4 of the book's chapters explore some of the most interesting aspects in English etymology. Bryson works with Names, and naming, discussing the ways in which Anglos earned their last names, and how towns, pubs, and cities have monikers hilarious, arbitrary and historical all at the same time. Following that he deals in the history of swearing (and the publication of taboo words). Interesting to explore that while shit, fuck, and cunt are the most recognized/reviled curses in English, that these are the first batch that deviates almost entirely from religiosity. Throwing out a damn or 'zounds was much more scandalous for the fact that it referenced God in one way or another. It seems to point to our cultural taboo list throughout time, a point Bryson doesn't really explore (he's not writing for philosophical inquiry) at all. We now, in America, are more concerned about sexuality, and the abject, than we are about speaking ill of religion by proxy, or claiming to direct the mantle of God's power. It seems a clear point, but it is intriguing that our concerns of swearing are directed by our concerns of society. English is fluid. Living.
A penultimate section explores wordplay. The creation of crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and our long love... reaching back to Greek and Roman times... of palindromes, anagrams and puns. Truly one of Bryson's greatest chapters in the book, combining humor with really trivia-based education. Then again, my love for all of those things may have skewed my point of view.
The final chapter attempts to ask what will become of English in the future. Bryson discusses the many movements to make English the official language of the United States, and the associated unfounded fears of it being enveloped by Spanish via immigration. He quickly points out the error of these claims, seeing English as developing and maintaining strength for years, despite conflicting dialects and minor alterations. And he closes on a lamentative thought: he hopes that as English blends we do not lose the nuances between all British English and American English dialects. What is compelling here, though, is that no updated epilogue has been composed. Now, nearly 20 years after its initial publication, The Mother Tongue has nothing to say about the internet, text messaging, email and all of the technological advances that have led to historical informal changes in English.
While Bryson addresses the silliness, and arbitrary nature, of grammar, I would like to see what he could do with the new dictionaries of abbreviations for text messaging. What would Samuel Johnson have done, creating his first dictionary, with the likes of OMG, LOL, ROTFLMAO. Could he have reconciled these phrases? Bryson points out that during the 19th and 20th centuries, many scholars attempted to "fix" English spelling by making all words operate conventionally. Changing "school," for instance, to "skool." These men long since failed to gain following for their new spellings, but without even trying, texting and email (Both of these words invented since the publication of the book!) have done much for their early cause. We now see that u is an acceptable replacement for you. 2 for to, and too. Even the unaccepted, but promoted version tho is back in action. Amazingly, after years of fighting to change the language, all these scholars ever had to do was put the language in the hands of young persons who paid by the letter to send their messages. Capitalism alters English too, and not just for the purposes of communicating concepts, but in actual shape, sound and feel. And blame also lies with those damn Jonas Brothers.
Even without Bryson's take on the most recent developments in language The Mother Tongue takes a fun, educated, but not sterile or dry look into where the words we speak everyday come from, and how they've changed. Communication, though vital, is so easily taken for granted and Bryson did a fine thing by giving readers the chance to consider diction in a more physical, less academic sense. As an English major, I'd highly recommend this book. And as a casual reader, I'd still point anyone looking for wit and knowledge to snag this from the local book store. Don't fuck around, read a book. It is actually more bracing to swear in print. Bryson scores again.
- ► 2012 (48)
- ► 2011 (121)
- ► 2010 (95)
- ▼ April (6)