The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way

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9781439505854: The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way

How did English, 'treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants' become the undisputed global language? How did words like shampoo, sofa and rowdy (and others drawn from over fifty languages) find their way into our dictionary? In this revealing and often hilarious book, Bill Bryson examines the mother tongue and explores the countless varieties of English and the perils of marketing brands with names like Pschitt and Super Piss. With entertaining sections on the oddities of swearing and spelling, spoonerisms and Scrabble, and a consideration of what we mean by 'good English', "Mother Tongue" is one of the most stimulating books yet written on this endlessly engrossing subject.

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Who would have thought that a book about English would be so entertaining? Certainly not this grammar-allergic reviewer, but The Mother Tongue pulls it off admirably. Bill Bryson--a zealot--is the right man for the job. Who else could rhapsodize about "the colorless murmur of the schwa" with a straight face? It is his unflagging enthusiasm, seeping from between every sentence, that carries the book.

Bryson displays an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic, and this inevitably encourages a light tone; the more you know about a subject, the more absurd it becomes. No jokes are necessary, the facts do well enough by themselves, and Bryson supplies tens per page. As well as tossing off gems of fractured English (from a Japanese eraser: "This product will self-destruct in Mother Earth."), Bryson frequently takes time to compare the idiosyncratic tongue with other languages. Not only does this give a laugh (one word: Welsh), and always shed considerable light, it also makes the reader feel fortunate to speak English.

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