Friday, March 30, 2012

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

I got home from work late one night recently, and turned on the TV for a bit to wind down before bed. For some reason there was something actually interesting on at 2am - Fry’s Planet Word, wherein he discusses language in all its glory.

I have always been interested in language, grammar, etymology and so on, and I read a lot about it while at Uni (mostly in, or inspired by, Editing classes) but I’ve really been neglecting it since I finished my course. I did, however, get Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson for Christmas or a birthday not too long ago, and watching Planet Word enticed me to take it off the TBR pile. So, when it became apparent I wasn’t going to finish Heuristics and Biases anywhere near on time, I decided to give it a read.

Bryson is, I guess, mostly a travel writer. That’s how he’s usually described, anyway, and the bulk of his work is travel-related, but he’s not exactly averse to branching out into other forms of nonfiction. I read his book on science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, a few years ago - and I’d recommend it to anybody (indeed I have barely had it on my shelf since reading it because I keep lending it to people).

He’s also dabbled in history and biography - I haven’t actually read any of these as yet (nor any of his travel books, I should point out) but I strongly suspect that the categories his books are grouped into are done mainly by publishers and reviewers - Bryson seems to basically just write about what interests him, and digressions about the history of a word, idea, place etc are always included simply because they’re interesting.

He has only one book that’s considered a “History” book, but A Short History of Nearly Everything has much more than the current state of science, it is an account of how we got to where we are - how ideas evolved, who discovered what, etc. Mother Tongue is explicitly about the history of English, and one assumes a biography of Shakespeare is quite, um, historical.

I suspect his travel books are much the same - you just get a feel for his style, and I’m sure he has many interesting historical anecdotes to help make whatever place he’s visiting come to life.

Mother Tongue was typically engaging and informative - as I said, I’m fairly well-versed in this sort of thing and I still learned a great deal. My one gripe is with the section on dialects, when he talks about Australian English. It’s not just that dialects like Australian (and Canadian, South African, New Zealander, etc) are incredibly under-represented compared to American - which I suppose is not so terrible, considering the author and the intended market - it’s that, with Australian at least, Bryson has gotten things very wrong.

He says “A tub of ice cream is called a bucket in New South Wales and a pixie in Victoria” - I can honestly say I’ve never in my 24 years of living in Victoria (and eating, it must be said, quite a lot of ice cream) heard a tub of ice cream referred to as a pixie. Tub or bucket would both seem to be equally acceptable, but there doesn’t seem to be any term strongly associated with ice cream receptacles. The worst part about this is that there’s a fairly interesting - and factually accurate - discrepancy between states as to the names of various beer glasses that could have made his point perfectly well.

He also says that we say “cookie” instead of “biscuit” - we said “biscuit” almost exclusively until around the 90s, and even now I’d still say “biscuit” is the more common term (though it does depend on context, and even then is by a small margin). Considering this book was written in the late 80s (as you can tell from the fact that he comments on phrases like “come the raw prawn”) you can’t even give him the benefit of the doubt. The other one - and a personal gripe of mine - is that he claims we spell it “labor” instead of “labour”. No. The Australian Labor Party spells their name thus due to influence from their American cohorts, but the generic noun and verb are still spelled “labour”.

These kinds of errors (the latter a common misconception, the former seemingly just through a ridiculously small sample-size) more than anything make me wonder if he’s made similar mistakes on the other dialects he’s unfamiliar with; I don’t know them well enough to tell either way. It’s worth noting that A Short History of Nearly Everything was said by one scientist to be “annoyingly free of mistakes” so it doesn’t seem to be an habitual problem.

That aside, though, I did love the book and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in language and the history of English - and indeed England.

Below follows the list of books I’ve completed so far for the 52 Books challenge. As you can see, Mother Tongue was the 12th book and we’re approaching the end of the 13th week, so I’ve slipped a little behind. I am however reading three other books at the moment (and am right near the end of one) so hopefully I can maintain my pace.

1. Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene
2. George Orwell - Animal Farm
3. Noam Chomsky - What Uncle Sam Really Wants
4. Noam Chomsky - The Prosperous Few
5. Noam Chomsky - Secrets, Lies and Democracy
6. Noam Chomsky - The Common Good
7. Peter Singer - Practical Ethics
8. Tucker Max - Sloppy Seconds
9. Robert Cialdini - Influence
10. Virginia Woolf - A Room Of One’s Own
11. Chuck Palahniuk - Survivor
12. Bill Bryson - Mother Tongue

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