Quite a bit has changed since this book was written; language has changed, attitudes towards language have changed, and culture overall has changed. Some pieces from this book have not aged well; it’s rather dismissive of some languages and cultures (weirdly judgmental over Japanese writing, for example) while being aggressively defensive of others. There is also little-to-no attention paid to the many additions given to English by marginalized communities; I was surprised to come across very little about the contributions of people of color have upon modern English. There’s a good deal of talk about how English is the “best”, “greatest”, “most effective” and the like- and while this is a tome specifically about English and how it became the language that it is, it can be hard to enjoy fully while sorting through a good deal of Euro-centric privilege.
With that being said, this was an enjoyable and informative listen. I thought, at first, that choosing the audio-book was a mistake. There were so many notes that I wanted to take, so many bits that I wanted to highlight, and so many things that I wanted to research at a later date, but in the end I truly enjoyed the audio experience. There is a good deal of wordplay and colorful language that I would have missed out on if not presented in an audio medium. For example, the chapter on “swear words” is a delight:
Cunt, if you will forgive an excursion into crudity, as we so often must when dealing with Chaucer, is spelled at least five ways ranging from “Kent” to “quainte” so it impossible to say whether the inconsistency lies with Chaucer or his copyists or both.
The Mother Tongue puts a human face on language- especially English- and how it became what it currently is and how it will continue to grow, split, multiply, and spread throughout the world. We are given in-depth histories of the human body and why it can make the sounds that it makes, the movement of people across Europe throughout the modern era, the changes to English that came strictly from fad and fashion, and breakdowns of many of the colorful dialects that make up the English speaking world.
“Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.”
Bryson also has a go at traditional grammar, which I found enlightening. Why are grammar rules set the way they are? There was no ruling governance of grammarians; just a few stuffy fellows in the 18th and 19th century making up rules that they found pleasing- and for some reason we all ran with them and allowed them to become authorities on the subject!