Reviewed in the United States on August 10, 2018
Bryson, Bill, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, IA in 1951. He attended Drake University but dropped out after two years and went backpacking in Europe. He got a job at a psychiatric hospital in England, where he met a nurse there. They married and returned to Des Moines, where he completed his bachelor’s degree at Drake. Then the couple returned to England where they have lived since. He has written several books, worked as a journalist and educator.
Bryson starts his story of the English language with the Cro-Magnons and their cave drawings, then came the Basques and their language Euskara, which pre-dates the Neolithic languages spoken in Stone Age Europe.
Those were the days of the Indo-Europeans, but Bryson suggests that there may never have been such a language. At any rate, it branched into Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Slavonic and Thraco-Illyrian, which further branched to Latin, Faroese, Parthian, Armenian, Hindi, Lithuanian, Sanskrit and Portuguese.
From the Germanic branch came English, Frisian, Flemish, and Dutch. He devotes a chapter to the First Thousand Years, which I think is the heart of the story of the English language.
Today in Schleswig-Holstein, where Germany connects to Denmark, even today you can hear people talking in what sounds like a lost dialect of English. “Veather ist cold” and “What ist de clock?” According to a professor of German at nearby Kiel University, this is very close to the way people spoke in Britain 1000 years ago. This area of Germany, called Angeln, was once the home of the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes who crossed the North Sea to displace the native Celts.
Nearby, in marshy northern Holland and western Germany live a group whose dialect is even more closely related to English. These are the Frisians. In about 450 A.D., following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain, these Angles and Frisians, as well as Saxons and Jutes, began an exodus to England. They dominated most of the British Isles, except for Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, which remained Celtic strongholds.
Although the new nation was dominated by the Saxons, it became known as England, after the Angles. These early tribes were functionally illiterate, so there is no written account of this period.
It must have been a blow to the Celts, overrun by primitive, unlettered warriors, because they were far more literate, sophisticated people.
For the next several centuries, what was to become the English language grew, swallowing up Celtic, Angle, Saxon languages, and then adding Norman, and French… then discarding loads of words, but steadily adding Latin, French and Scandinavian words. Shakespeare came along and single-handedly added thousands of words, like: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, and many more. Other bright lights of England, like Ben Jonson, Thomas More and Isaac Newton, added more.
At this point Bryson notes how many languages have similar words, like bruder in German, biradar in Farsi, bhrata in Sanskrit, bhrathair in Gaelic, all meaning brother in English.
Over 300 million people speak English in some fashion, and it seems as if all the rest of the world wish they spoke English. English has invaded other languages mercilessly. For years the French resisted introduction of English words into their language, but no more. There are more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.
English is richer in vocabulary –the Oxford English Dictionary lists 650,000 words. English speakers have 200,000 words in common use; German, 184,000 and French 100,000.
English is more flexible than other popular languages. It is not so rigid in word ordering.
And, English is comparatively simple to spell. There are fewer consonantal clusters, singsong tonal variations and it is generally free of gender.
Germans talk about ein image problem or das Cash Flow, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, Japanese spread a blanket and have a pikunikku, drink kohi (coffee) or miruku (milk), speak through a maiku (microphone), shop in a depaato (department store), and put on meeku (make-up). Poles watch telewizja and French shop at le drugstore.
Some Americans today bemoan the fact that English is becoming extinct, in danger of being crowded out by millions who speak Spanish, or Chinese. They have sought to enact legislation declaring English the official language of the U.S.A.
Bryson warns that the danger of another language crowding out English is not the real problem. More and more Americans show that they are unable to grow a useful vocabulary, use educated grammar and spelling, or express themselves intelligently. If you use Facebook or other such social media, note when a popular topic comes up for wide discussion and many chime in the comment: How many comments reflect a low level of fluency in what must be the native language of people?
Author Bryson ends his book with his greatest worry about the future of English…not that the various strands will drift apart, but that they will grow indistinguishable. What a sad loss that would be.