by velocibadgergirl

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Mother Tongue:   English and How it Got That Way, by Bill Bryson

"To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking to be mangled."

So begins the fourth paragraph of Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue. When I finished it a few weeks ago, I had dogeared so many pages to mark quotes I wanted to write down that I ended up buying the book so I could just note the best passages with a pencil instead of writing them all out. The Mother Tongue is basically about the origins and many, MANY eccentricities of the English language. I realize that probably sounds sort of dry and boring, but it's actually really funny and very cool. I'm sure it's not a book for everyone, but I think that English geeks and fans of solid nonfiction would really enjoy it.

And don't forget, it's often hilarious. One review I found online counseled, "Do not read this book in public. Actually that's a health warning which could be applied to most Bill Bryson books. Don't read them in a public place, because you'll laugh so much people will look at you like you're crazy. And don't whatever you do read them on a plane. Otherwise the other passengers will stare at you strangely for the remainder of the flight!" This rather closely echoes a comment left on my Christmas post by Northwoods Baby: "Bryson RULES, but don't listen to his books on tape if you're driving. Danger."

Some of my favorite passages:

"It is often noted that Chaucer's spelling was widely inconsistent: Cunt, if you will forgive an excursion into crudity (as we so often must when dealing with Chaucer), is spelled in at least five ways, ranging from kent to quainte. So it isn't possible to say whether the inconsistency lies with Chaucer or his copyists or both."

"Rather more alarmingly, 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:

Then owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning had apparently somewhere come across the word twat--which meant precisely the same then as it does now--but pronounced it with a flat a and somehow took it to mean a piece of headgear for nuns. The verse became a source of twittering amusement for generations of schoolboys and a perennial embarrassment to their elders, but the word was never altered and Browning was allowed to live out his life in wholesome ignorance because no one could think of a suitably delicate way of explaining his mistake to him."

"Nothing illustrates the scope for prejudice in English better than the issue of the split infinitive. ... I can think of two very good reasons for not splitting an infinitive:
1. Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago.
2. Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted."

"One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees. It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries. To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resisting change--at least slapdash change. Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage. We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one's lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak."

"To keep your pecker up is an innocuous expression in Britain (even though, curiously, pecker has the same slang meaning there), but to be stuffed is distinctly rude, so that if you say at a dinner party, 'I couldn't eat another thing; I'm stuffed,' an embarrassing silence will fall over the table. (You may recognize the voice of experience in this.) Such too will be your fate if you innocently refer to someone's fanny; in England it means a woman's pudenda. ... Sometimes these differences in meaning take on a kind of bewildering circularity. A tramp in Britain is a bum in America, while a bum in Britain is a fanny in America, while a fanny in Britain is--well, we've covered that."

"Often place names arise from mishearings or misunderstandings--notably the West Indies, which of course have nothing to do with India. They simply reflect Columbus's startling inability to determine which hemisphere he was in. Yucatan in Mexico means 'What?' or 'What are you saying?'--the reply given by the natives to the first Spanish conquistadors to fetch up on their shores."

"English is unusual in including the impossible and the pleasurable in its litany of profanities. It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncracy of our tongue that when we wish to express extreme fury we entreat the object of our rage to undertake an anatomical impossibility or, stranger still, to engage in the one activity that is bound to give him more pleasure than almost anything else. Can there be, when you think about it, a more improbable sentiment than 'Get fucked!' We might as well snarl, 'Make a lot of money!' or 'Have a nice day!'"

Overall, I liked The Mother Tongue so much that I thought about reading it all the way through again, but I've decided to tend to my ever-lengthening reading list instead. I definitely will pick this one up again, though.



Blogger norahs1213 said...

That sounds interesting to me, and I don't even read nonfiction!

12:44 AM  

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