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Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

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In England, the speech patterns of the capital city of London came to establish the standard for how the language was spoken in the rest of the country, although this was a long and uneven historical process that didn’t happen all at once or with the same speed everywhere. Vestigial features of older forms of the language remain in place to this day, with archaic pronouns like thee and thou still spoken in parts of Yorkshire.

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

Other summaries give you just a highlight of some of the ideas in a book. We find these too vague to be satisfying. The poet Robert Browning caused considerable consternation by including the word twat in one of his poems, thinking it an innocent term. The work was Pippa Passes, written in 1841 and now remembered for the line "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world." But it also contains this disconcerting passage: Bryson's book on the English language is a compendium of linguistic trivia interspersed with the author's biased and misinformed musings on the history and features of the language. Published in 1990, the book was written before Internet changed the way the world communicates and hence a lot of the content regarding the spread of languages is hopelessly outdated by now.He surveys the history of language, the world's language families and where English is situated in the Indo-European stream, and all the other offshoots, some which are no longer living languages. He recounts the triumph of Anglo-Saxon language over Celtic (even though many of England's place names preserve their Celtic roots), the impact of the Norman invasion (of 10,000 words, approximately 3/4ths are still in use including much of the language of nobility (duke, baron prince) and much language of jurisprudence (justice, jury, prison among others). He explores the different ways words are created, sometimes by doing nothing! His discussion of pronunciation and particularly the shifts in vowel sounds was fascinating, For example house was once pronounced hoose. You weren't born in a barn but barn in a born. More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to...'

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way - Goodreads

The Mother Tongue is somewhat dated. I did not realize it was published in 1990 until hearing "Soviet Union" mentioned in the present tense. His view about machine translation is way out-of-date. He talks about a giant Chinese keyboard, which in fact never caught on. The Wubi method, invented in 1986, encodes Chinese characters by the five shapes of strokes and converts them to alphabetic characters on a generic keyboard. It gained popularity before being replaced by the Intelligent Pinyin method, which facilitates the standard phonetic representation of Chinese characters. Of course, Bill Bryson couldn't have foreseen how the Internet would change English (it would be interesting to know). Some elements of otherwise obscure English dialects have gone mainstream, largely due to the legacy of the British Empire. The common American word peek, as in “to take a peek,” was once confined to a small corner of East Anglia (most other English people would say peep or squint), but because migrants from this region settled in the New World, the word got an unlikely new lease on life. Likewise, the ubiquitous American yeah was, until the mid-20th century, an obscure local word used only in certain regions of southeast England. Divergence Between British and American English The language had already been dead for hundreds of years, yet it managed to survive thanks to the priests who’d memorized certain hymns, called the Vedas. Though the priests were ignorant of the words’ meanings, they managed to pass them down from one generation to the next. Indeed, despite the massive waves of immigration during the 19th century, American speech patterns did not diverge over time; instead, they converged. The movement of people within the US created a linguistic melting pot of intermingling, which homogenized speech patterns. As time went on, people faced social pressures to conform to “normal” American speech, especially the children of immigrants, who faced even stronger pressure to shed the accents and idioms of their parents. The middle portion of the book gets very involved in examining the evolution of English spellings and pronunciations as it moved from Old English to Modern English, and the further hiving off of American English from British English. Some of this was really illuminating, but the parts discussing the minute details of spelling and grammatical shifts were slow-going unless you are truly a student of the language and I found somewhat less interesting.

Many people will tell you that today’s world is more connected than ever before. This may well be the case, but that doesn’t mean that connectedness is anything new. One age-old indicator of a near-global connection is language. Take the word “brother.” In German it’s “bruder,” in Sanskrit it’s “bhrata,” and in Persian it’s “biradar.”

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