No. 7: The Mother Tongue
As fascinated as I’ve always been with language, particularly old ones (I took 2 years of Latin in high school and 3 years of Greek in college), I know almost nothing of how English came to be. I thought I knew plenty, of course, but then Bill Bryson pointed out how much I had to learn, and how much of what I had thought wasn’t much more than semi-educated guessing.
I’m no linguist, and I’m not widely read on the subject, so I can’t vouch for the truth of Bryson’s tale – and it is a tale containing almost as much legend and mystery as fact – but I can say that it’s great fun.
He starts by describing English as the world’s language, not just as the one choice for communicating across language barriers, but as a language that is penetrating other areas culturally and linguistically. Not only is English the choice of most international relations, but its words are being expropriated all over the world:
Already Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refueling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt…and the Japanese go on a pikunikku.
Thus begins the journey that takes us from “The Dawn of Language” through to English as we know it. Along the way we learn that the Angles, invaders of Briton from the north, preserved their language, while the Normans, conquerors from the East, abandoned their own in favor of French before losing out to English once they ruled the island. We trace the development of Old English from its many roots (German, Latin, Celtic), Chaucer’s influence on Middle English, and Shakespeare’s role in the way we speak today.
From there Bryson branches out into all sorts of topics. An incomplete list of chapter titles: Pronunciation, Varieties of English, Spelling, Good English and Bad, Names, Swearing, Wordplay. He broaches each subject with humility, describes it with humor, and includes an entirely appropriate sense of, “What? Hell if I know,” when the discussion calls for it. I not only laughed out loud at passages like those on spelling simplification – “Attempts to simplify and regularize English spelling almost always hav a sumwut stranj and ineskapubly arbitrary luk abowt them, and ov cors they kawz most reederz to stumbl.” – but much of the certainty I had about the development of our language, and its stable character has rightly dissipated. Our language’s words, conventions, spelling, and grammar have always been changing, and will continue to do so.
This read was great fun, I hope to read more of Bryson’s work in the future.