Book Review : The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson


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I am a big fan of Bill Bryson's books. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of the best popular science book ever written. His travelogues are witty and well-written. This book left me with mixed feelings.

I was shocked and disappointed after reading the first chapter of The Mother Tongue. It is riddled with mistakes and inappropriate examples about various languages. Despite his extraordinary command of English, his ignorance of other languages is stunning. I have commented on those mistakes below.

I closed the book in anger after the first chapter, and it took me a few weeks to reopen it. I did well though. Bar a few points of contentions, the rest of the book is well worth reading. Each chapter tackles a specific aspect of the language, such as pronunciation, spelling, etymology or the varieties of English. I had previously read The English Language by David Crystal and The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil & William Cran, which were more extensive about the history of the language and the description of the varieties of English. But Bill Bryson's books brings in new examples and a different insight.

I like his no-nonsense approach on spelling rules (who cares about what academicians think, it's the general usage that rules). His explanation on the ways the total number of words in a language can be counted (most of chapter 10) prevents me from re-explaining it myself. Should I stumble on a question about how many words there are in the English language, I will just ask people to read that chapter.

I wish I could recommend this book as much as the two aforementioned ones. But his long series of mistakes about French, Japanese and other languages is like an ugly facial wart that threatens the overall beauty of the book and needs to be surgically removed or intensively treated (i.e. edited) before one can pleasantly look at it again.

Chapter 1 (pp. 11 to 20)

The first chapter ("The World's Languages") is absolutely horrible. I wish it could be heavily corrected for the next editions of the book, as it makes Bill Bryson look like a fool by anyone who likes learning foreign languages.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth.

This is the same in other European languages, simply because it is often assumed that there is only one truth (hence "the"), but one can tell many lies about that a fact/truth (hence "a").

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Already Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das Cashflow, Italians program theri computers with il software, French motorists going away for weekend break pause for les refueling stops, Poles watch telewizja , Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku.

His example about French are all wrong. French speakers don't use the phrase weekend break (although "weekend" and "break" alone are used in French), but partir en weekend ("to have a weekend break"), ou faire un break when they mean "to have a break". I have never heard a French speaker say refuelling stop (the closest would be "pit stop" as a joke, using the Formula One term). People normally say faire le plein. He mentions that Spaniards use the English word "flirt", but it is also common in French, and the verb "flirter" can be conjugated to any tense (Eût-il fallu que je je flirtasse avec toi !). That would have been a better example of English words used in French than the mistaken "weekend break" or "refuelling stop".

How about Polish using the term telewizja ? That is inappropriate, first because the word television is used in almost every language, then because the English word actually comes from the French télévision, not the opposite (for once). As for Austrians eating Big Macs, that's just an international product name, not an actual loan word.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
For the airlines of 157 nations (out of 168 in the world), it is the agreed international language of discourse.

For a book about linguistics, Mr Bryson should also know the difference between nation and country before claiming that there are 168 nations in the world. First of all, nation refers to a cultural, linguistic or ethnic group, not a sovereign state. Then, if he meant country, that is not even correct. There are 203 countries worldwide, not 168. I may be nitpicking but these are obvious mistakes for me, and the fact that every page is filled with them makes it very annoying and completely discredit Bill Bryson's ability to write such a book.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between "I wrote" and "I have written". The Spanish cannot differentiate a chairman from a president, and the Italians have no equivalent of wishful thinking.

All wrong again about French ! Mind = esprit / brain = cerveau ; man = homme ; gentleman = gentilhomme. "I wrote" = "j'écrivais" or "j'ai écrit" (depending on the sentence), while "I have written" is "je viens d'écrire". What he meant, perhaps, was that most Americans say "I wrote" when they mean "I have written". Again, his example for Spanish (only one word for president and chairman) would have worked fine for French. There are thousands of words that English can differentiate and French cannot. How did he manage to pick only wrong ones ? Well, he actually quoted these ones from the New York Times, but he could at least have double-checked them rather than copy absurdities.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget's Thesaurus. "Most speakers of other languages are not aware that thesaurus exist."

I don't know any Romance or Germanic language which does not have thesauruses. It may be more necessary or useful in English, but unless he was referring to minor tribal languages that only have words for four colours and no written language, I don't see the relevance of that argument.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow.

Talking about tribal languages, Bill Bryson takes up the common misconception that Eskimos have over fifty words for snow, when in fact this is just due to the agglutinative nature of Eskimo language(s). They are just an adjective + snow (e.g. softsnow, hardsnow, dirtysnow), but appear to be one word, just like Japanese has no space between written words. He really hasn't done his homework.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Not only can we say "I kicked the dog", but also "The dog was kicked by me" - a construction that would be impossible in many other languages.

I also don't know why he would think the passive sentences is inherent to the English language. It is used more often in other Germanic languages, and exist in Romance languages too. In Japanese the passive is more common than the active. But I am sure that if we look well there are some tribal languages in the Amazon or in New Guinea that can't express the passive...

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
In Japanese, the word for foreigner means "stinking of foreign hair".

And where on earth did he hear that !? The word is "gaikokujin" or "gaijin", which means "outside person". Up to 150 years ago, there was another term for Westerners, "nanban", that meant "southern barbarian".

If he wanted to take examples of Japanese words untranslatable into English, he should have noted that Japanese has a plethora of personal pronouns (over 20 ways of saying "I" or "we"). Bryson argues that English avoids confusion and "social anxiety" of languages with more than one word for "you" (he cited German, with its inflections). But Japanese has the particularity, not found in European languages, that each pronoun that means "I" or "you" has a different connotation regarding gender, status, age or personality, and that anyone can choose to use these the way they want depending on who they are talking to. There are no strict rules or inflections, so that leaves just the flexibility and richness. But that he won't mention.

Bryson's knowledge of other Western European languages is abysmal. He think that English is easier to learn because you can drop articles and say "It's time to go to bed" instead of "It's the time to go to the bed". But that actually makes it more difficult because the meaning can be changed depending on whether the article is used or not. It's not the same (in British English) to "go to the prison" (to visit) or to "go to prison" (as a prisoner). There are countless rules about when to use or not to use an article in English. You can say "go to THE university in Oxford" (as a visitor), but never "go to the Oxford University". You may think that proper nouns (with a capital letter) never take "the", but it isn't that simple. We go to London, to France, to Mount Fuji, but to the Sahara and to the Mediterranean. Bryson is clearly wrong about English being easier to learn regarding articles.

He is also wrong about his example of phrases "for which other languages require an article". "Between heaven and earth" is "entre ciel et terre" in French, "entro cielo e terra" in Italian, and "zwischen Himmel und Erde" in German. None use articles for that particular expression.

To illustrate the fact that English speakers prefer acronyms to long names, he mentions laser and NATO. Laser is a word used in every language on earth, and NATO is used in the acronym form in all European languages too (OTAN in Romance languages). Mr Bryson really has a gift for choosing bad examples. Two thirds of the examples in the first chapter are incorrect or ill-fitted.

Chapter 2

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
It was long supposed that Neanderthal was absorbed by the more advanced Homo sapiens. But recent evidence indicates that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted in the Near East for 30,000 years without interbreeding - strong evidence that the Neanderthals must have been a different species.

Of course this book was written 20 years ago, so Bryson could not have known or the hybrid skeletons found. It is now almost certain that Neanderthals did interbreed with Homo Sapiens, even if only a tiny percentage of our genes come from Neanderthal.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
...or even the Ainu language spoken on the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan by people who have clear Caucasian racial characteristics and whose language has certain (doubtless coincidental) similarities with European languages.

The Ainu people do not have "clear Caucasian racial characteristics". They look somewhere in between East Asian and North Amerindians. In terms of DNA, they are closer to north-eastern Siberians, and are about as remote to Caucasians as other East Asians (in fact more so than some Chinese and Mongols).

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
creole (from French créole, "native")

The word "créole" does not mean "native" in French at all. It comes from the verb "créer" (to create) + the suffix "-ole" to make it sound like a language. It means "makeshift language" or "created language".

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Many other languages disappeared over time, among them Cornish, Manx, Gaulish, Lydian, Oscan, Umbrian, and two once dominated Europe, Celtic, and Latin.

Bryson does not seem to understand that these are all Italo-Celtic languages (except Lydian), and there was no such thing as a Celtic language, apart from the Bronze-age language from which stem Gaulish, Latin, Oscan, Umbrian and Brythonic languages. In some way all Romance language are Celtic languages, because Latin was itself partly descended from Proto-Celtic (as well as Etruscan and maybe other Near-Eastern languages via Greece and Southern Italy).

Chapter 4

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
The Nomans used the suffixes -arie and -orie, while the French used -aire and -oire, which gives us such pairings as victory/victoire and salary/saloire.

The French for "salary" is not "saloire" but "salaire". I suppose this is just a typing mistake though.

Chapter 5

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
A final curious fact is that although English is a Germanic tongue and the Germans clearly were one of the main founding groups of America, there is almost no language from whihc we have borrowed fewer words than German. Among the very few are kindergarten and hinterland.

This is untrue, there are hundreds, including many common ones (angst, aspirin, dachshund, deli, diesel, doppelganger, fest, frankfurter, hamburger, hamster, lager, leitmotiv, masochism, nickel, quartz, realpolitik, schnitzel, waltz, wunderkind, zinc). American and Australian English have even more loan words from German (sometimes only used locally in states with lots of German immigrants).

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
3. Words are created. Often they spring seemingly from nowhere. Take dog. For centuries the word in English was hound (or hund). Then suddenly in the late Middle Ages, dog -a word etymologically unrelated to any other known word - displaced it.

This is a blatant contradiction of what Bryson writes in p24-25 : "The word for dog, for instance, is suspiciously similar in Amerind, Uralic and Proto-Indo-European". Indeed the English word "dog" comes from the Old English "docga", itslef derived from the Proto-Germanic "*dukkon".

Chapter 8

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organizing documents. Filing systems often exist only in people's heads. If a secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.

This is not true. In Japanese, dictionaries and filing systems are classified using the phonetic kana syllabary, which has a logical order just like the Western alphabet. In Chinese some ideograms were designated to have a phonetic value only. In case in homonyms, it is the number of strokes needed to draw a character that determines the logical order. It is a bit more complicated than an alphabet, but there is a logical system to list words or to organize documents.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Even more complicated is Japanese, which is a blend of three systems: a pictographic system of 7,000 characters called kanji and two separate syllabic alphabets each consisting of 48 characters. One of these alphabets, katakana (sometimes shortened to kana), is used to to render words and names (such as Dunkin' Donuts and Egg McMuffin) that the ancient devisers of kanji failed to foresee. Since many of the kanji characters have several pronunciations and meanings - the word ka alone has 214 separate meanings- a second syllabic alphabet was devised. Called hiragana and written as small symbols above the main text, it tells the reader which of the many possible interpretations of the kanji characters is intended.

Many mistakes here. First, Japanese isn't more complicated than Chinese, as it only uses a fraction of the Chinese characters used in Chinese (about four times less). The phonetic syllabary (not alpahbets !) make it much easier to read and write than Chinese. Kana is not the shortening for katakana, but the terms for either syllabary (katakana or hiragana). Katakana isn't used to write words and names with no kanji, it is used to write foreign words and names. Japanese words and names with no kanj, or with no usual kanji, or no kanji known by the writer, are written in Hiragana. The small symbols above the main text are actually called Furigana and can be written in Hiragana or Katakana, depending on the origin of the word. For example, the name of a foreigner in Western alphabet can have furigana above it to indicate how it is pronounced, but using katakana, not hiragana. Bryson also gives the impression that Hiragana was invented after katakana, which is false. Both syllabary date back to the 9th century. Finally, it is incorrect to say "kanji characters" as "kanji" already means "Chinese character" (ji = character).

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Even so, there is still, on the face of it, a strong case for spelling reform. Anyone who has tried to explain an eight-year-old, or even a teenager, the difference between wring and ring or between meet, mear and, mete, or why we spell hinder with an e but hindrance without, or why proceed has a double e but procedure doesn't, or why we spell enough, biscuit, and pneumonia in the very peculiar ways that we do will very probably appreciate that.

Hinder has a "er" sound which hindrance lacks (it is not hinder-ance but hind-rance). Proceed with a single e would be pronounced "pro-said". Procedure doesn't need the double e because a vowel follows the d, which lengthen the e sound (basic English phonetic rule). Biscuit is spelt like in French; the u has become silent over time. Pneumonia is the Latin spelling, the usual in medical vocabulary. Nothing difficult to explain or understand about that, even for an eight-year-old.

Chapter 11

Regarding the hypothesis on the origin of "O.K." (pp 164-166), I am surprised that neither Mr Bryson nor other sources I have read mention the possibility of it coming from an Anglicised form of the German "Alles klar" (which basically means the same as "okay"). German speakers were historically numerous in the United States. It would be easy for German immigrants trying to speak English to say "all clear" as a direct translation of German. They may have written it "Ol Klear" or in a similar phonetic fashion. There were also many Dutch speakers around New York in the 17th century, who might have Anglicised it in the same way.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
The word for the American currency, dollar, is a corruption of Joachimsthaler, named after the sixteenth-century silver mine of Joachimsthal, Germany.

Joachimsthal is in Bohemia, in the modern Czech Republic, not in Germany.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Putting aside the consideration that without America's contribution English today would enjoy a global importance about on a par with Portuguese, it is not much to say that this attitude is unworthy of the British.

It is almost certain that English would have had a greater global importance than Portuguese even if the young USA had decided to adopt another language than English. The British Empire grew to be the largest the world has ever known. Canada, Australia, half of Africa, India and many places in East Asia (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia...) would still be English speaking. The UK did lead the industrial revolution, not the USA. Britain's contribution to science and technology up to the early 20th century was greater than any other country (closely followed by Germany though). It is likely that English would be the main international language nowadays even without the USA, although French and German would be seen as more substantial alternatives than they are today. What is certain is that the English language would be poorer without American English.

Chapter 12

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Thus the sumato (smart) and the nyuu ritchi (newly rich) Japanese person seasons his or her conversation with uptodatu expressions like gurama foto (glamour photo), haikurasu (High class), kyapitaru gein (capital gain), and rushawa (rush hour).

Apart from the messy syntactic construction, there are romanization mistakes in sumato (which should be suma-to and is used to mean slim or stylish not "smart" in the American sense of "clever") and rushawa which is actually rasshu awa- or more commonly just rasshu. Uptodatu is not even Japanese. They would pronounce it as apputsu-de-to. Uptodatu is obviously Mr Bryson trying to make it look Japanese with zero knowledge of Japanese pronunciation or spelling.

In the list of Japanese borrowings from English on the next page, erebata should be spelt erebe-ta-. Bifuteki comes from the French bifteck, although ultimately from the English beefsteak. The English import is sute-ki (steak), which is far more common than bifuteki.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
...the French don't go running or jogging, they go footing. They don't engage in a spot of sunbathing, but rather go in for le bronzing.

French speakers do say aller jogger or faire du jogging. Running is just courrir (no need of an English word). Nobody says bronzing. The French verb is bronzer and does not come from English at all. :rolleyes:

Chapter 13

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Sometimes the names we use are simply imposed by outsiders with scant regard for the local nomenclature. Korea, for instance, is a Japanese name, not a Korean one.

This is entirely false. The name "Korea" comes from the Goryeo period of Korean history (note that G and K are both written G in Korean and Mandarin Chinese). The Japanese word for that period is "Kourai", which sounds nothing like "Korea".

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
The term Dutch is similarly based on a total misapprehension. It comes from Deutsch, or German, and the error has been perpetuated in the expression Pennsylvania Dutch - who are generally not Dutch at all but Germans.

Wrong thinking. The term Dutch was used in English well before the Netherlands became an independent state from Germany. Dutch comes from the Low German for Dütsch, which is used instead of Deutsch in northern Germany and originally also the Netherlands (where it is now Duits). The Netherlands and northern Germany have been very close historically and linguistically. Dialects on each side of the border are mutually intelligible. The modern distinction between the two countries was only officialised in 1648. The English called "Dutch" any north Germans, including people from Frisia, Gueldre, Holland, etc. (as opposed to the Germans further south). So the term Dutch is NOT a misapprehension. Borders just changed over time while language stayed.

Chapter 14

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
In French it is a grave insult to call someone a cow or a camel and the effect is considerably intensified if you precede it with espèce de ("kind of") so that it is worse in French to be called a kind of cow than to be called just a cow.

It is not a serious insult to call someone a cow or a camel in French. In fact it is almost never used as an insult. Calling someone a cow or, more likely a cow's skin (peau de vache) just means that someone is overly strict (e.g. a teacher). The expression "Oh la vache !" just means "Oh my god !" or something that effect.

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
Some cultures don't swear at all. The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words.

Again, that isn't true, at least for Japanese. Japanese people do swear much less than Westerners, but that's just because they are overly polite. Watch a Yakuza movie or read manga for boys and there will be plenty of swearing in the like of "Kora, ano kuso yarou nani shite yagare ?" (which loosely translates as "Damn it, you shit bastard what the f@ck are you doing ?").

Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue said:
English is unusual in including the impossible and the pleasurable in its litany of profanities. It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncrasy 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 f@cked!" We might as well snarl, "Make a lot of money!" or "Have a nice day!"

This is far from being idiosyncratic to English. "Get f@ckedis translated and used in the same ways in many European languages. The French say "Va te faire foutre!" or "Va te faire mettre!" or the more indirect "Va te faire voir chez les Grecs" ("Go get some in Greece" as an allusion to the widespread homosexuality in ancient Greece). The original meaning of the swear phrase "Go get f@ckedis "get sodomised by another man". I hope that explains its usage to Mr Bryson.
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