Who would have thought that a book about the English language 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 rhapsodise about "the colourless 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.
My wife told a Briton her godson's name was Daniel, and the man was very much pleased: "an English name!" This sums up Mr Bryson's book quite nicely. It is entertaining indeed, but not enough to hide the fact that his assertions are sometimes of a very questionable nature, if not downright wrong. Examples? The French, too, take over English words - like "ouest", for "west". This, with your leave, Mr Bryson, is sheer humbug - and a very serious blunder. And, as an example for the versatility of English, he cites the word "arachibutyrophobia". English? Man alive, do you really mean it? He marvels at the prononciation of Scottish place names, but forgets, that their origin is Gaelic - or Norse - and certainly not English. I could go on and on and on. If you want entertainment, buy a detective story, and forget Bryson.
A great and entertaining book
This was the most entertaining book about languages I've ever read. Bill Bryson managed to deeply dig into the linguistic background and present us the relevant facts in an comprehensible and highly amusing way.
"Mother Tongue" is highly recommendable not only for native speakers of the English language but also for everyone who is interested in the general aspects of our language's history and its features.
I read this book about three years ago, and I found it to be very delighful. Now, in the meantime having started to do British Studies, I've recently read it again - it was still worth the lack of sleep in the mornings. It is not one of Bryson's most typical books (at least in my opinion), yet it should be suitable for those who have an interest in English, its history and the origins of its absudities, which are being dealt with in Bryson's ever charming style.
I'd recommend it to every student of English (whether native speaker or not), and to all those who just love to read funny books dealing with topics usually not considered to be that delightful. It's worth it.