Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

As a writer, I love thinking about the English language (and other languages too, but less so, since I can’t write or speak them) and so it was really interesting to read Mother Tongue, because it gave a full history of the English language and explained the various different things which had influenced it throughout its development.

As an example of all the wonderful things you can learn from this book, think about the word ‘okay’. I’m sure you probably say it every single day, but where does the word come from? Well, as it turns out, nobody quite knows for sure. There are several theories, including the possibility that it was the initials of somebody in America who had to sign off incoming shipments. That’s just one of many interpretations. The fact that we don’t have a solid answer is fascinating to me.

Shakespeare came up lots of times as well, primarily because he has made so many huge contributions to the English language. Obviously, there were several phrases and expressions which I knew came from Shakespeare, but I was very impressed by the full scale of his contributions. He was compared against other single authors who have been remembered ever since, but none of them even come close in terms of how much they’ve contributed.

Bryson also takes a look at swear words and how the level of offense caused by them is relative to history. There were periods of time when certain swear words of today were in common usage. He explains the various factors that make something become a “swear” and it perfectly illustrates just how flexible language is.

His approach to language, spelling and grammar is to treat it like an ever-evolving thing which isn’t set in stone – which, of course, is exactly what it is. He demonstrates that the English spoken and written in the past was essentially a completely different language to what we speak and write today. He also showed how certain words used to be spelled in completely unrecognisable ways to how they are spelled now, while other words remain intact. If you’re someone who feels bad about your spelling, you will hopefully be comforted by the fact that even today, major dictionaries disagree as to the spelling of certain words.

I think any writer will love reading this. Essentially, it helps you to get to know the tools that you use every single day. After each new chapter, I had a fact which I was eager to share with my house friend. It’s an entertaining book with a lot to teach. It helped improve not only my knowledge of the English language, but my appreciation too.

Rating: 9.1/10

Buy it here.

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