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THE MOTHER TONGUE by Bill Bryson Kirkus Star


by Bill Bryson

Pub Date: July 17th, 1990
ISBN: 0380715430
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

A merry and bright Baedeker to the English language, its history, character, and probable future. American expatriate (to Britain) Bryson proves a witty and knowing guide here, with scarcely a trace of the sneer that spoiled his popular tour of small-town America, The Lost Continent (1989). Instead, a gentle humor, enamored of oddities, warms his discussion of the origins of English, its evolution and current world dominance (so that even in Tokyo, he says, one will find English warnings to motorists: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn"). Constantly striving to amuse, Bryson at times seems to be compiling merely a Ripley's of English as bizarre facts stream by in dizzying array: a list of weird American place-names including Dull, Tennessee, Ding Dong, Texas, and "the unsurpassable Maggie's Nipples, Wyoming"; a list of some of the 1,685 words that Shakespeare donated to the language (including "critical," "fretful," "obscene," and "gust"); and so on. But Bryson's passion for words shines throughout, and chapters on how English evolved from Indo-European and Anglo-Norman roots, and on its virtues and vices in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar invigorate potentially dull subjects ("English grammar is so complex and confusing," he points out, "for the one very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin--a language with which it has precious little in common"). Lively chapters on swearing, wordplay (crosswords, palindromes, anagrams--"mother in law = woman Hitler"--etc.), and the language's bright tomorrow close Bryson's upbeat account. An erudite delight, sure to captivate many.