Monday, April 11, 2011

More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.

I've already written about two Bryson books on this blog, his domestic history At Home and his European travelogue Neither Here Nor There, and I wasn't originally planning on reading another Bryson so soon. But I was wandering around a lovely independent bookstore and found a copy a The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way on sale for $5. Couldn't pass that up! I've actually read this before but to be honest, I don't remember it. I had bought a copy of this at some point back in college. And also at some point in college I lent the book out to someone and never saw it again. I'm not sure who has it, but I hope they're enjoying.

Bryson's skill is taking a dry topic and making it interesting. How else does a book that goes over phonetic topics such as aphesis, apocope, syncope (which by the way, spell check does not recognize) make for something I want to pick up and pick up multiple times at that? I think there are two things Bryson does that make the everyday exciting: he approaches each topic with enthusiasm and from an amateur's standpoint. It would be easy for a book like this to veer off into the very technical aspects of the history and phonetics of the language and end up requiring the reader to be an expert. You never get the feeling you need to be taking notes, because you're going to be tested when reading Bryson. Even the terminology above is given to sate any curiosity about the technical terms he's describing, but could easily be left out without leading to confusion about the topic at hand. By the way, those terms refer to the dropping of sounds during normal speech, for example looked being phonetically pronounced "lookt", Australia being shortened to "Stralia" and the street in London Marleybone becoming "Mairbun" or even "Mbn". "For the record, when bits are nicked off the front end of words it's called aphesis, when off the back it's called apocope and when it's from the middle it's syncope". (88) For a further (and more amusing) example of this, Bryson uses his humor (the best teacher) to give further example:
"Where the British will say howjado for 'how do you do,' an American will say jeetjet for 'have you taken sustenance recently?' and lesskweet for 'in that case, let us retire to a convivial place for a spot of refreshment.'" (89)
The book discusses the history of English from the time our (very distant) ancestors began making guttural noises, through the Saxon and Roman occupation in England, the dynamic development during Shakespeare's day, the influx of various languages into English during the mass immigration to America in the early 20th century, and through to present day, or at least 1990 when the book was written. "Swearing" might be my favorite chapter, because I have the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy. The first line of the chapter is "Among the Chinese, to be called a turtle is the worst possible taunt," (214). I told Boyfriend he was a turtle, but he just looked at my confused. Apparently he is too far separated from his roots to appreciate such an insult. It is interesting to see what words have always been curses, what words have developed their taboo and which have lost it. Fuck has always been pretty bad, cunt was once "relatively harmless" and used by Chaucer (and spelled queynte and queinte, as well as the typical spelling, which I find fantastic) and in "nineteenth-century England puppy and cad were highly risqué" (217).

If you want to know more about the history, quirks and direction of the English language, you could do a lot worse than this one. It's funny and you don't need a linguistics degree to understand it. I'm pretty sure I've said it before, but I would read a book about paint drying if Bryson wrote it.

Title quote from page 11

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. HarperCollins Perennial, 1990.