Bill Bryson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

English, like Spanish and Portuguese, is a language that has two closely linked forms, one in the Old World, one in the New. Bill Bryson is an American journalist who has lived for long periods in England, which means that he is in a good position to write a book about English that takes account of both versions and the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them, which is what he has done in this book.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, and plenty of corners are cut. For example, he favours the theory that the Neanderthals couldn't talk efficiently if at all, and goes on from this to claim that "Neanderthal man was hopelessly outclassed." But, as he also remarks, it is now known that our species and the Neanderthals coexisted for 30,000 years in the Near East, which hardly suggests that the Neanderthals were hopeless inadequates. In fact, the disappearance of the Neanderthals is still a mystery and the question of whether, or how well, they could speak is highly contentious.

But his real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language are the following: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pendant, and some 1,685 others? You were doubtless aware that the meanings of words may drift slowly over time, but it is startling how often they seem to change to mean their diametric opposite. For example, counterfeit once meant a legitimate copy, brave once meant cowardly (compare bravado), and garble meant to sort out. These are just a few of the hundreds of unlikely features of English past and present that Bryson has managed to unearth.

Spelling is a recurrent concern in English, for natives as well as foreigners, and Bryson has a good chapter on it, pointing out numerous inconsistencies and illogicalities. He is moderately sympathetic to spelling reform but doubts if it can be taken very far in practice, and he also thinks it would have various disadvantages. But he fails to mention one good feature of our curious orthography, which is that it often gives a clue to the history and origin of words, which would be lost if we spelt phonetically. If you care about language, this would be a significant loss. In this context I'd have welcomed a discussion of the apostrophe, which is so consistently misused that some recommend its abolition, yet it does have importance for the palaeontology of English.

In his chapter on 'Good English and Bad' he strikes a fair balance between total anarchy and over-prescriptiveness. He justly remarks that some of the rules you find in books about good writing are based on nothing but prejudice. An excellent example is the split infinitive argument. As he points out, numerous authorities deny that there is anything wrong with splitting the infinitive, and he suggests, tongue in cheek, that there are only two reasons for avoiding it: a wish to adhere to Latin usage and insistence on clinging to a pointless affectation. I can think of a third: to prevent readers from supposing that you don't know any better. Bryson also condemns the superstition about avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition, although here he unaccountably fails to quote Winston Churchill's classic send-up of this so-called rule: "This is something up with which I will not put." But Bryson keeps a sound sense of proportion about linguistic change. As he rightly says, the language loses some of its nuances if we fail to distinguish between infer and imply, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and so on.

The differences between British English and American English are endlessly fascinating, and can be embarrassing. Bryson cites the British expression "keep your pecker up," which is indecent in America but quite harmless in Britain, whereas a reference to a woman's fanny is an innocent synonym for buttocks in the USA but would provoke an embarrassed silence at a British dinner party (something that Bryson claims to have experienced personally).

This brings us to the subject of swearing, to which Bryson devotes a chapter. Here, in the present liberal climate, he is able to discuss openly all the words which in an earlier and more innocent age boys used to search for furtively in dictionaries. In this context he mentions euphemisms but fails to cite those that serve to differentiate British and American usage, such as rooster instead of cock and roach instead of cockroach. He mentions that to call a woman a cow in French is an insult, but oddly overlooks the fact that it is also an insult in British English (has his knowledge of the vernacular deserted him here?); but to call her a mare is pretty much OK. (OK is an expression about whose origin he has an interesting discussion.)

I have a few quibbles other than those already mentioned, mostly minor. One is that his grasp of Spanish seems to be distinctly shaky. Another is that he thinks you can distinguish by ear between the pronunciation of "that's tough" and "that stuff," or "grey day" and "grade A." To me, they're identical unless you are deliberately speaking so as to avoid ambiguity; in ordinary speech you have to rely on the context to tell which is meant. Still, this isn't supposed to be a work of scholarship and I wouldn't want to quibble too much. What matters is that Bryson succeeds triumphantly in making a book about English usage entertaining, and that has to be an excellent thing. Mother Tongue will amuse native speakers of English and even educate them, while readers whose native tongue isn't English will probably feel some justification for the exasperation they often experience when trying to learn this maddeningly illogical language.

%T Mother Tongue
%A Bryson, Bill
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 1991
%P 270 pp
%G 0380715430

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