I’ve just been taken on an armchair tour on the history of English via Bill Bryson’s entertaining book Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. I explored this genre a little bit when I wrote my post on the Gift of the Gob but this book goes into a lot more fun detail about the origins of English into its ultimate status as the world’s most spoken tongue. This book was published a while back so some of the notions do seem rather dated and erroneous as they seem to have been sourced from places you could not rely on as factual authorities. It is still an entertaining read.
Bryson first explores the ambiguities of English as understood by a foreigner. For example in English, one tells a lie but the truth, the sentence “I could care less” is equivalent to “I couldn’t care less” and the phrase “all items not on sale” means some items are on sale. He explains the intricacy of English by pointing out in the phrase ‘I went swimming’, swimming is a past participle while in the phrase ‘Swimming is good for you’, it is a gerund despite being the same word. He also goes into some detail about foreign words in other languages and I have found out that in Japanese the word for foreigner translates as ‘stinking of foreign hair’, Italians call syphilis ‘the French disease’ and con games get called ‘American swindles’ in France and Italy.
Next I found insight into how the possibility of speech evolved. The evolutionary change which pushed man’s larynx deeper into his throat brought about with it the possibility to communicate by talking. So this is why humans can talk and animals can’t. Then history of linguistics is given a mention by discussing the contributions of Sir William Jones, who discovered there were commonalities across languages despite geographic boundaries and proposed a theory that all classical languages derived from the same source. For example, brother is known as bruder in German, bhrathair in Gaelic, bhrata in Sanskrit and biradar in Persian. It may seem tenuous but I can see a connection.
The author then explains how language always has the same purpose but is achieved in multiple ways. When it comes to features of grammar and syntax, such as number, tense or gender, they can vary depending on the language. For example, the Japanese language doesn’t use plurals, in Russian nouns have twelve different inflections and Irish Gaelic lacks the words yes and no. Then he goes on to speak about cultures in which languages co-exist and how majority languages usually dominate in spite of careful measures taken to prevent minority languages from dying out.
I found the overview of how English developed in England under the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons quite informative and interesting such as the fact their pagan gods are preserved for antiquity in the names of our weekdays; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday stand for Tiv, Woden, Thor and Frig and Saturday, Sunday and Monday stand for Saturn, the sun and the moon. The English spoken changed after the invasion of the Vikings which meant a lot of Scandinavian terms became part and parcel of English. English language changed even more after the 1066 Norman conquest because their French origins resulted in the aristocracy speaking in French and while the peasants continued to speak in English.
Next comes an overview of the richness of the English vocabulary and the complexities of multiple synonyms, polysemy and contronyms. A Danish linguist said words were formed in four ways: adding to them, inventing them, removing from them and leaving them alone. The author suggests two more ways: making mistakes and borrowing from other languages.
The minor treatise in orthoepy lets readers know none of the letters in English can be relied on for consistency. The c in race, rack and rich are all pronounced differently or remain silent like the b in debt or the a in bread. Most words are not pronounced in the way it is spelled.
The discourse on dialects made me aware of something I did not know before. Apparently one of the people quite interested in the study of dialects was J.R. R. Tolkien who later became famous as the author of The Hobbit. Dialects in England apparently function differently to the way dialects work in North America. It does not only need to distinguished by region or locality as there are occupational dialects, ethnic dialects and class dialects.
Have you ever wondered how the alphabet came into being? It has evolved from pictographs. People used pictographs to represent things but once they hit on the idea of using them to represent sound, the possibility of having an alphabet came into being. The two possible ways of rendering speech into writing is then discussed by outlining their pros and cons. Apparently English spelling is erratic because for a long time, people were indifferent to using consistent spelling because dialects prospered as there was no central authority for the English language. Things changed after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and standardised spelling was achieved by 1650. At the very same time, the Great Vowel Shift was underway. People changed the way they pronounced vowels in vast groups of words, but the publishers weren’t cognisant of the changes. This is why the: ‘ea’ sounds different in knead, bread, wear and great. English lost the /k/ sound from /kn/ words, the /w/ from /wr/ words, and the /g/ from gnat and gnaw. By the time the change was complete, writing habits had been established.
Reviewers have been rather critical of some of the author’s errors so I guess go into reading this with an aware mind. However I do think some of the errors are oversights on the parts of the editor and proofreader as they haven’t done the job of checking facts for accuracy. It is a very light-hearted approach to English language discussion so I think this is worth looking only if you enjoy the way the author, Bill Bryson, writes.