I recently reviewed a book about how the 178 printed miles of the Oxford English Dictionary was created. Concurrent with that book, I was also listening to Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.
While I wouldn’t say that one book was better than the other, I will say that if i had to pick only one, I’d pick this one. The wider scope of Bryson’s book gives you a little bit of everything – swear words, where names from come (think about “Goldwater” for a second), why kids’ instinct about grammar is right and adults are wrong – all kinds of interesting things!
As usual for a Bryson work, the structure of this book about the English language involves the author merrily and somewhat cheekily presenting main ideas with lots of rabbit trails. The first thing covered is the origins of language itself, both spoken and written. I found this unexpectedly interesting because I have two young kids. Next he covers the origins of English in particular (that’s why it’s called Germanic but has Latin grammar). The development of the language and its sponge-like ability to absorb influences was one of the richer sections, but since it was an audiobook and I was driving I wasn’t able to retain as much as I would have liked to. That’s the one section I wish I had the physical book for notetaking. Accents, swearing, names, and word games end the book. Those, along with the origins of language, were my favorite sections. I wouldn’t have minded a little more time on names, or a more in-depth look at poetry and literature versus other forms of writing.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, but I would recommend it to trivia nerds, writers, and English teachers.