Books : reviews

Bill Bryson.
Mother Tongue: the English language.
Penguin. 1990

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 20 August 2002

I was slightly put off this gentle rambling about the English language when, on page four, Bryson repeated the old Urban Legend: the Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow. Then he later refers to Tolkien as the author of the Hobbit trilogy; possibly technically correct, but a rather bizarre choice of description.

But there is some good entertaining stuff here. The best part of the book is the middle section, where Bryson covers the history of the English language, enlivened with good examples. We learn about the origins of English pronunciation and spelling vagaries, illustrated with phrases like 'a cat with nine lives lives next door' (he also notes the contrasting pronunciations of mouth as a noun and mouth as a verb), and factoids like conflicting regional usages have left us with two forms of the word, such as fox with an f, but vixen with a v, and that a napron became an apron, and even that an ekename became a nickname. The history lesson helps explain why the spelling is so ... idiosyncratic:

English spellings were becoming fixed just at the time when the language was undergoing one of those great phonetic seizures that periodically unsettle any tongue. The result is that we have today in English a body of spellings that, for the most part, faithfully reflect the pronunciations of people living 400 years ago. ... the silent letters of most words today are shadows of a former pronunciation. ... But it didn't end there. When in the seventeenth century the English developed a passion for the classical languages, certain well-meaning meddlers began fiddling with the spellings of many other words in an effort to make them conform to a Latin ideal. ... A final factor ... is that we not only freely adopt words from other cultures, but also tend to preserve their spellings.

After the history lesson, and some acidic comments on the damage done by meddling amateur grammarians, and split infinitives in particular, Bryson moves on to talk about the use of English around the world. For example, the rather alarming statement that this package will self-destruct in Mother Earth is merely a helpful comment on a Japanese product, explaining that it is biodegradable.

The final chapters on Names, Swearing, and Word play, are a bit more disjointed, and feel more like a collection of articles stitched together. But there are enough amusing and informative stories throughout to make this a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours.

Other choice quotes:

Today we have two demonstrative pronouns, this and that, but in Shakespeare's day there was a third, yon, which denoted a further distance than that. You could talk about this hat, that hat, and yon hat. Today the word survives as a colloquialism, yonder, but our speech is fractionally impoverished for its loss.
     (Other languages possess even further degrees of thatness. As Pei notes, 'The Cree Indian language has a special that [for] things just gone out of sight, while Ilocano, a tongue of the Philippines, has three words for this referring to a visible object, a fourth for things not in view and a fifth for things that no longer exist.')

Quite a number of words that we've absorbed no longer exist in their place of birth. For example, the French do not use ... panache ...

although English is a Germanic tongue ..., there is almost no language from which we have borrowed fewer words than German. Among the very few are kindergarten and hinterland. We have borrowed far more words from every other European language, and probably as many from several smaller and more obscure languages such as Inuit. No one has yet come up with a plausible explanation for why this should be.

One might argue that, it being a Germanic language, so many of the common words and concepts are therefore already in English, as any etymological dictionary will show. Yet actually there are many more borrowings, and semi-translations, than the two Bryson notes. What about blitz(krieg), coffee-klatsch, doppelganger, ersatz, flak, gestalt, gestapo, glockenspiel, lager, langlauf, lebensraum, lederhosen, leitmotiv, liebfraumilch, liverwurst, marzipan, meerschaum pipe, nazi, poltergeist, pretzel, pumpernickel, sauerkraut, schadenfreude, snorkel, wanderlust, zeitgeist? One could even make an argument for frankfurter, hamburger and rottweiler. And there are several technical terms, not in common use maybe, but certainly in everyday use by mathematicians, physicists, and the like, such as bremsstrahlung, eigenvalue/vector, entscheidungsproblem, festschrift, gedankenexperiment, gegenschein, pH. (I'm not making these up: I have used all of them at one time or another!) At the other extreme of formality, some of the Yiddish we borrow, like kibitz, klutz, kvetch, schlep, schmaltz, was itself borrowed or derived from German.

The U.S. Army in 1974 devised a food called funistrada as a test word during a survey of soldiers' dietary preferences. Although no such food existed, funistrada ranked higher in the survey than lima beans and eggplant

perhaps nothing speaks more clearly for the absurdities of English pronunciation than that the word for the study of pronunciation in English, orthoepy, can itself be pronounced two ways.

With the disappearance of the halfpenny, the English are now denied the rich satisfaction of compressing halfpennyworth into haypth.

although it is true to say that these [pronunciation changes] constituted some of the most sudden and dramatic changes English had ever undergone, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about a period that spanned, even at its most rapid, a couple of generations. When Chaucer died in 1400, people still pronounced the e on the end of words. One hundred years later not only had it become silent, but scholars were evidently unaware that it ever had been pronounced. In short, changes that seem historically to have been almost breathtakingly sudden will often have gone unnoticed by those who lived through them.

It is hard to say which is the more remarkable, the number of influential people who became interested in spelling reform or the little effect they had on it.

when looked at globally, most of our spellings cater to a wide variation of pronunciations.

Consider the curiously persistent notion that sentences should not end with a preposition. The source of this stricture, and several other equally dubious ones, was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad. It is to Lowth we can trace many a pedant's most treasured notions: the belief that you must say different from rather than different to or different than, the idea that two negatives make a positive, the rule that you must not say 'the heaviest of the two objects', but rather 'the heavier', the distinction between shall and will, and the clearly nonsensical belief that between can apply only to two things and among to more than two. ... Perhaps the most remarkable and curiously enduring of Lowth's many beliefs was the conviction that sentences ought not to end with a preposition. But even he was not didactic about it. He recognized that ending a sentence with a preposition was idiomatic and common in both speech and informal writing. He suggested only that he thought it generally better and more graceful, not crucial, to place the preposition before its relative 'in solemn and elevated' writing. Within a hundred years this had been converted from a piece of questionable advice into an immutable rule. In a remarkable outburst of literal-mindedness, nineteenth-century academics took it as read that the very name pre-position meant it must come before something - anything.
     Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say 'you was' if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer - surprise, surprise - is that Robert Lowth didn't like it.