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Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: The Mother Tongue

After reading The Body, I set off to read another Bill Bryson book, and found The Mother Tongue. Having bounced off several other books about the history of the English language, I thought Bryson might be good about it. I was disappointed in the first several pages, where he repeated myths about languages (such as the Eskimos having 50 different words for snow) that are debunked by John McWhorter's great lecture series.

When you're finally past the introductory stuff, Bryson shows that he does have a good command of the language and the history of it, and how diverse it really was:
he related the story of a group of London sailors heading down the River “Tamyse” for Holland who found themselves becalmed in Kent. Seeking food, one of them approached a farmer’s wife and “axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys” but was met with blank looks by the wife who answered that she “coude speke no frenshe.” The sailors had traveled barely fifty miles and yet their language was scarcely recognizable to another speaker of English. In Kent, eggs were eyren and would remain so for at least another fifty years. (pg. 59)
 How quickly the language evolved is quite striking:
When Chaucer died in 1400, people still pronounced the e on the end of words. One hundred years later not only had it become silent, but scholars were evidently unaware that it ever had been pronounced. In short, changes that seem to history to have been almost breathtakingly sudden will often have gone unnoticed by those who lived through them. (pg. 92)
 He also has interesting observations about how strange the English present tense is:
In fact, almost the only form of sentence in which we cannot use the present tense form of drive is, yes, the present tense. When we need to indicate an action going on right now, we must use the participial form driving. We don’t say, “I drive the car now,” but rather “I’m driving the car now.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the labels are largely meaningless. We seldom stop to think about it, but some of the most basic concepts in English are naggingly difficult to define. (pg. 134)
 English, unlike many other languages is largely driven by common usage, rather than committees or official academies. This is by and large a good thing, since as linguists have discovered, our use of language is instinctual, and prescriptive impositions upon English in the past (like many scholars who tried to use Latin as an standard would tell you never to split an infinitive, which of course, is worthless advice) hurt the language more than they help:
Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say “you was” if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer—surprise, surprise—is that Robert Lowth didn’t like it. “I’m hurrying, are I not?” is hopelessly ungrammatical, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I?”—merely a contraction of the same words—is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in “Many people were there”), but not when it is followed by a, as in “Many a man was there.” There’s no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are. (pg. 143)
 There are lots of language facts about English usage was interesting as far as the cross-pollination between England and the USA:
Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan England that died in England were fall as a synonym for autumn, mad for angry, progress as a verb, platter for a large dish, assignment in the sense of a job or task (it survived in England only as a legal expression), deck of cards (the English now say pack), slim in the sense of small (as in slim chance), mean in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog as a synonym for pig, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, ragamuffin, homespun, and the expression I guess. Many of these words have reestablished themselves in England (pg. 171)
Of course, we like to think of English as being popular, but in fact, that is not so:
 Most estimates put the number of native speakers at about 330 million, as compared with 260 million for Spanish, 150 million for Portuguese, and a little over 100 million for French. Of course, sheer numbers mean little. Mandarin Chinese, or Guoyo, spoken by some 750 million people, has twice as many speakers as any other language in the world, but see how far that will get you in Rome or Rochester. No other language than English is spoken as an official language in more countries—forty-four, as against twenty-seven for French and twenty for Spanish—and none is spoken over a wider area of the globe. English is used as an official language in countries with a population of about 1.6 billion, roughly a third of the world total. Of course, nothing like that number of people speak it—in India, for instance, it is spoken by no more than 40 or 50 million people out of a total population of 700 million—but it is still used competently as a second language by perhaps as many as 400 million people globally. (pg. 181)
 The simple fact is that English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think. According to U.S. News & World Report [February 18, 1985], even in Switzerland, one of the most polyglot of nations, no more than 10 percent of the people are capable of writing a simple letter in English. What is certain is that English is the most studied and emulated language in the world, its influence so enormous that it has even affected the syntax of other languages. According to a study by Magnus Ljung of Stockholm University, more than half of all Swedes now make plurals by adding -s, after the English model, rather than by adding -ar, -or, or -er, in the normal Swedish way. (pg. 182)
 All in all, the book was good reading, but not nearly as accurate (especially when Bryson wanders off topics into discussions of non-English languages --- the man clearly has no background in Asian languages!) as I would have liked, which casts credibility on his other books as well. I think John McWhorter or The Language Instinct is a better introduction to the general subject of linguistics. But hey, at least I didn't bounce off it!

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