Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Had I not been a historian, I might have been a forensic etymologist.

Summary: Bryson looks chronologically at the development of English, then shoots off into subtopics like profanity, dialects, dictionaries and more.

My thoughts: Bryson overheard a conversation my dad and I had years ago while landscaping. It's possible he was hiding in a nearby rhododendron bush as we were chatting, tucked behind a big, pink flower; we didn't check all of them for spies.

Anyway, we were talking about the fact that we had just made three unintelligible syllables into a full conversation.

"Jeet?"

"No, Jew?"

We completely understood each other, and bought matching cheesburgers to prove it. And this was just one example, we realized, of how we regularly slurred, twisted and generally poorly enunciated the English language into our own form of communication. But, I know now, we were not alone. Bryson recorded part of the conversation in his book as an example of the American tendency to do just such horrid things to the language.

And so I was taken back, through this book, not only to shady rich people's backyards on summer days in the 1990s, but my medieval history professor's office at UMASS. One day I walked in and said, "Where did the 'w' sound come from in 'one,' and where did it go in 'two?'" He didn't know. It was just the beginning of one of many word origins conversations we had over the years.

Bryson's work, which, being from the late '80s, is charmingly full of Soviet Union and Paul Hogan references, asks us to look at our language from many angles. Think about how what is written on the page - say, "coffee," for instance - might look the same to any reader of English, but is spoken and sounds different based on where you are in the world. Especially New York. And coffee's an easy one; there are some words, usually place names, that we mash and mangle into pronunciations that are not even close to the arranged letters. It's what makes travel so fun. One man's "PEA-body" is another man's "pee-ba-dee."

He reminds us, too, of how the language is ever-evolving. Heck, when he wrote the book and listed the expansion of media, he didn't even use the word "internet." Hadn't been in widespread use yet (the word was coined in 1982. And why do words get "coined?"). We add words to English all the time, for good or bad. We may look back and think of how funny our forbears spoke a hundred years ago, how archaic it all must have sounded, but guess what English speakers will be thinking about us in 2113? English is as dynamic as the oceans.

There was a belief - probably still is - that Americans and Brits will not be able to understand each other in the next century, that the languages will simply drift so far apart as to become two. I whoeheartedly disagree, but  have one thing Bryson couldn't contemplate when he wrote the book: the aforementioned worldwide web. We are conversing now more than ever on a weekly, daily, hourly, minutely (?) basis. I think we'll still be able to chat, trade, conspire and argue for years into the future.

If the history of language development is for you, so is this book. If you are bored to tears by it. read it anyway, as Bryson is one of the country's top literary wits, and at the very least makes the topic, like any he writes about, fun.

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