B is for Bill


hello dear readers,
This week’s book is
“Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson.

I think that choosing a non-fiction book for my second week was a mistake on my part. Firstly, I do want to make it clear that I love Bill Bryson, in a fatherly/grandfatherly way. In fact, in an uncle-like way. He’s the cool one who lives hundreds of miles away but would give you presents/alegandawing/money when he saw you twice a year.
Mother Tongue deals with the origins of the English language, the reasons it’s become so powerful internationally, and the places it’s going in the future. According to Bill, the answer to all of these is “America”. Okay, I’m being a bit flippant. After all, even I couldn’t read a couple of hundred pages where the word “America” was repeated over and over, and I read Marian Keyes. It comes pretty darn close though.
Bill liberally sprinkles the tome with amazing factoids such as explaining that the reason we call the live animal (cow,sheep,pig) and the meat (beef,mutton,pork) different things is to do with the peasant language of Anglo-Saxon versus the court language of French, i.e. boeuf, mouton and, erm. Porque? *Checks google* Apparently, it’s porc. So there. Anyway, I thought that was pretty cool and solved a niggle that I’d had for a while.

There are others, such as the Japanese renderings of some words which were originally English but now sound Japanese. These weren’t particularly amazing, but it did give me the opportunity to say things in an hilarious accent. Of course, the fact that the book was written in the late eighties doesn’t help the vaguely uncomfortable finger pointing that Bryson does throughout, including the entire chapter he devotes to what can be called, for ease, as ‘engrish’. He does make a good point in this, which is that there are a lot of people who would class themselves as English speakers, but actually cannot string a sentence together and lack the skills to articulate their basic needs, desires and wants. It struck me as I read that this description (or, at least, Bryson’s hinting at this) could very well apply to so-called “English patriots”. A quick perusal of facebook sites with names such as “I’m English forever and if you don’t like it/aren’t white/don’t have the St George tattooed on your arse go home even if you were born here and your parents were and your grandparents and in fact you are more English than I am” or something to that effect, will reveal a staggering low literacy level among the members.

That was definitely something that I expected from Mother Tongue, and never got. I wanted a study of the so-callled decline of literacy – is it real? If it is, should we be bothered or is it simply the evolution of language, as it’s been evolving for the last 2000000000 years (give or take)? There was a chapter on Shakespeare-isms. Bill said about four times that Shakespeare himself didn’t even know how to spell his own name. He also says that the OED spells it Shakspear, but no-one listens to it. There was also a chapter on silent letters and various Americans who tried to change the spellings of some words (dwel was one, I think) and succeeded in changing some others: catalog, program and so on. He spends an awful lot of time on this, which iI thought was strange as he is now not only a self-confessed Anglophile, he also lives somewhere around Wymondham (not exactly bustling and cosmopolitan, it has to be said) and is the Green Sherriff of East Anglia, or something. In Mother Tongue, he comes across as positively Anglophobic. There’s a lot of that classic defence tactic: “they started it”, which obviously means that he’s allowed to be downright mean about some parts of the world that aren’t American.

Another thing is that I felt like he bends the rules. At one point he writes down a long list of American words that a Briton wouldn’t know what to do with. He even invites the reader to cover up one side and try to identify the other. Shamefully, I did it. Some of the words are now easily recognisable, such as diaper and sidewalk. Some have fallen out of use altogether – I watch a lot of American TV and don’t remember a seesaw ever being referred to as a ‘teeter totter’.
There are other instances where Bill asserts that ‘no language apart from English has swear words’, or something along those lines. They’re just wrong, and that makes me doubt the fun “isn’t that amazing? I never knew that before!” moments elsewhere in the book. Just like that time that you found out your favourite uncle has a gambling habit, not a petting zoo. You just can’t trust anything else he says, and it makes you uncomfortable.

Next week it’s Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”


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