Another helping from the Bill Bryson smorgasboard. This book definitely has a different flavor to it, though, as it’s about linguistics, philology, and all things language. This area has actually been a secret interest of mine, as I’ve always found it fascinating how we learn language, how languages change over time, and how they change across regions. It’s one of the many great things about having a kid –you get to watch them learn to think and speak using language, and the natural, organic, and ultimately mysterious way that they go about it completely fascinates me.
Bryson goes into that a little bit, but the majority of the book focuses on the quirks of the English language and how it developed and emerged in its present form out of the mists of history. The point that I took from all this is just how absurd a language English is. Why is “know” spelled with a “k” at the beginning? Why is something “aural” or “urban” instead of “soundish” or “cityish”? What the heck does “spic and span” mean? Imagine if in mathematics 2 + 4 = 6, but 4 + 2 = 5, and 6 – 2 wasn’t even possible. That’s the level of absurdity we nonchalantly deal with every day, and and Bryson does a good job of making it apparent how weird that is.
Unfortunately this is not the caustic, witty, and consistently funny Bryson that I was used to from his travel diaries and collections of observational humor. It’s not exactly textbook dry, but Mother Tongue does get bogged down in one (or two or five) too many examples and meandering blatherings about things that just aren’t that interesting to anyone this side of a nameplate that says “Linguist” on it. It’s not snappy, it doesn’t make you smile that often, and I the only time I really laughed was the wide section of the book that Bryson spends tracing the etymology of the word “fuck.” But I admit, that part was pretty funny, ironically thanks to the scholarly tone of most of it.
So this wasn’t Bryson’s most entertaining work, but it was perhaps his most educational. And I just like this kind of stuff, so any attempt to breathe any character into it was welcome.