Bill Bryson (who also happens to be one of the best selling authors in the20th century) has mastered the art of making seemingly dull topics interesting and accessible to everyone. Bill Bryson is also like an old friend – I discovered his work back in high school and have often found myself going back to his books especially when I need a fun read.
Bryson is most famous for his travel writing (Down Under, African Diary) but also books such as A Short History of Nearly Everything – a book that answers all sorts of scientific questions for the general audience. Bryson traces the origin of universe right from the big bang to the evolution of homo sapiens in a very lively manner (much unlike those dull CBSE text books). As Bryson himself says – it’s as if all our school text books wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable.
Mother Tongue is one of Bryson’s earliest books and at over 300 pages long it is one of his shortest books. In the book he marvels at the beauty and the idiosyncrasies of the English language especially in comparison to other classical languages. He also traces the development of the English language through the past 1000 years. In true Bryson style he also comes up with gems of trivia such as
the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, have a word for the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. (Wouldn’t they just?). It’s sgriob.
Bryson also covers how difficult a language English can be especially for someone who learns it for the first time as an adult.
Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a meaure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean cut in half or stick together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful.
Although the book is mostly funny, Bryson overwhelms you with the sheer number of facts and trivia he throws at you every page (something he corrects in later books where he takes his time with each topic). Although the book aims to cover how the language is used in different parts of the world, it doesn’t exactly explain why English is spoken in many parts of the world (international trade doesn’t merit any mention). Further, since the book was written in 1990, Bryson doesn’t cover how English has spread across the world especially in countries in Asia.