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Mother Tongue By Bill Bryson

The mother tongue: English & how it got that way [Book]

The mother tongue:

English & how it got that way

by Bill Bryson

With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson–the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent–brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can’t), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world’s largest growth industries.

This fascinating book is not only the story of English language but also story of the people who contributed so much over the centuries and explains why it survived and thrived to become the premier language of choice in most parts of the world.

With the decline of the once mighty Roman Empire and departure of Romans from their English colony in 400 AD, left the British Isles vulnerable to foreign attacks. Over the next several centuries tribes like Frisians, Vandals, Saxons, Jutes and Angles attacked arriving from Germany. These were savages and against their brutal attacks, law-abiding educated Celts living in England at the time were no match. Many of them were killed and the rest were assimilated, some fled to France where they settled and named the area Brittany.

It is not clear why the language came to be known as English (after the tribe Angles) because Angles were neither the strongest nor their language any superior to other tribes. Around 850 AD Vikings from Denmark attacked and yet again influenced English language. It is remarkable that Celts for almost 1000 years and Romans for almost 350 years left no impact at all.

The final cataclysm on English language came with conquest by Normans from Normandy in France. Normans were Vikings who had settled in 800 AD in France.

Just as the case was in India where for almost 800 years the rulers did not speak local language,  courts and scholarship was done in Persian or Arabic or English depending on who ruled India. No English king spoke English for 300 years!!

Norman French and the Germanic tribes made lasting impression on the English Language. Normans were the ruling class in England which is reflected in French words used in English for high fashion, government and courts while humble trade names tend to be Anglo-Saxon words like baker, miller, shoemaker while more skilled trades had French words like mason, painter, tailor etc.

English is heavily influenced by old Norse, Danish (Vikings), German (Tribes like Angles,Frisians, Saxons), French (Normans).

English is part of Germanic family which consists of North Germanic (mostly Scandinavian), West Germanic (English, Dutch, German, Frisian, Flemish) and East Germanic (Gothic, Vandalic, Burgundian) which died off one by one. In 1783 William Jones came to India as a Judge and as past time taught himself Sanskrit and made a sensational statement that all classical languages like Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin and Gothic.

There were hundreds of dialects in England but over time dialect of London became the English language just as Florentine dialect of Florence became The Italian language.

English language is full of bobby traps – ‘ I could care less’ means the same thing as ‘ I couldn’t care less’- ‘items not on sale’ does not mean that every item is not on sale but rather that ‘only some items are on sale.’ There are a large number of negative words inept, ruthless, unkempt for which positive form is missing! Some argue that English has plethora of needless words. A penny less person can be called Poor, needy, deprived, underprivileged and disadvantaged! English has tendency to load up a single word with galaxy of meaning making it difficult for foreigners to learn. Word ‘fine’ has 14 meanings! Fine art, fine gold, fine edge, fine hair, feeling fine, court fine etc.

The army tank has nautical words like hatch, turret, hull, deck because it was developed by British navy rather than the Army! Sometime old meaning is preserved in a phrase Neck was once used for parcel of land hence nick-of-the-woods. Tell once meant count which is reflected in word bank teller. Some times two forms are used meaning the same thing- flammable and inflammable, iterate and reiterate, habitable and inhabitable, ravel and unravel.

Pronunciation spelled same way with totally different pronunciations
heard beard,
‘God-be-with-you’ became good-bye,
whole-be-thou became Hello,
fortnight was fourteen nights.

In Baltimore (pronounced Balamer) water is wooder, orange juice is Arnjoos, Orals are the baseball team Orials.
In the 18th century custom arose of pronouncing words like bath and path with broad ‘a’, in Boston this fashion was embraced so much that people used broad ‘a’ sound for words like Saturday,apple, hammer.
Italians tended to say ‘be-agg’ for ‘bag’ or ‘be-add’ for ‘bad’.
Jewish settlers would say ‘doo-awg’ for a dog or ‘coo-awfee’ for a coffee.

Sometimes spelling was changed to match its pronunciation Hertford was changed to Hartford.
Well into 19th century ‘chemist’
was ‘kimmist’, ‘negro’ was ‘neggar’ (hence insulting term nigger!) In Boston a soft drink is ‘tonic’ If you stone rather than a rock, you are a New Englander, If you stand on a line rather than stand in line, you are a New Yorker.

Word ‘colonel’ is a classic example why spellings and pronunciation in English are unpredictable. Italian word “colonnade” became “coronelle” in French which became “colonel” in English but it kept French pronunciation but adapted Italian spelling!!

One of the first one to study of dialects was JRR Tolkien, then professor of English at Leeds, the same guy who wrote Lord of the Rings!!

English grammar is so complex because it is based on Latin, it is like playing base ball using the rules of football!

Sometimes inappropriate use of a word can be telling – when George Bush told a TV reporter that he could not believe the enormity of what just happened, only if he had known primary meaning of enormity is evilness!!

The strength of the English language is that it is evolving, changing all the time. About 20,000 words are added every year and almost 66% of existing words are revised every 20 years!!

In 1884 masterly work of OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was started and managed single-handedly by Henry Murray and work was continued by others and completed in 1928, It recorded every word used in English since  1526 AD. One of the most prolific contributor was Dr. Minor, an American who resided in a hospital for criminally insane! (he had committed murder) He became insane after his horrific experiences in the civil war where he worked
as Army Surgeon.

The word ‘dollar’ comes from old English word ‘daler’. in 1782 Thomas Jefferson asked word ‘dollar’ be used for our currency as ‘ (spanish) dollar was a known coin and most familiar to minds of all people’.

The name America comes from Amerigo Vespucci who made 4 voyages without ever once seeing North America but a contemporary mapmaker mistakenly thought he had discovered the new continent and named it America and took the name off as soon as error was discovered but the name stuck ever since. (poor Columbus!)

Famous anagrams–

western union= no wire unsent
funeral =  real fun
schoolmaster = the classroom
mother-in-law = mother Hitler


Madam, I’m Adam.
A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.


Amphibology-  To intentionally construct  sentences that have two meanings, for example- Benjamin Disraeli wrote to an aspiring writer – ” thanks so much for the book, I shall lose no time in reading it ” Samual Johnson said something similar in spirit when he said to a writer
” Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original”

The future of English:

In 1880 Henry Sweet predicted – in another century England, America and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages but of course nothing of the sort happened and will not happen. Movies,TV, books, record albums, businesses tourism – all these are binding influences which will keep English a dominant global language.

If we should be worried about anything to do with the future of English, it should not be that
the various strands will drift apart but that they will grow indistinguishable. And what a sad, sad loss that would be.


Vijay Joshi ‘word hunter’ 11/19/2011