The Mother Tongue

First, thanks to Lauren for recommending this book!

The edition which I will be quoting from is by Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) from 2001. I am somewhat familiar with Bill Bryson, as I once read his Neither Here nor There, an amusing account of his retracing, in midlife, his travels across Europe which he took as a young man. So, however informative The Mother Tongue turns out to be, I am sure to be entertained.

My interest in English is amateur, both in the sense that I am not paid to do anything with it (except, I suppose, speak it at work) and in the sense that I love the language. So I am looking forward to reading this book.

Note that I have used the label 'profanity' for this post, which means that at some point, I will use words considered profane. I will indicate at which point I do so; you have been warned.

The book begins as follows:
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say that the results are sometimes mixed.
Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: "The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway." Or this warning sign to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor." [p. 11] Priceless. We're off to a good start.
Later, Bryson notes:
English is, in short, one of the world's great growth industries. "English is just as much big business as the export of manufactured goods," Professor Randolph Quirk of Oxford University has written. "There are problems with what you might call 'after-sales service'; and 'delivery' can be awkward; but at any rate the production lines are trouble free." [The Observer, October 26, 1980] Indeed, such is the demand to learn the language that there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States. [p. 13] I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this last fact is still true, even twenty years after the book's initial publication.
And, though Bryson spends some time discussing what distinguishes English from very nearly every other language in the world, he notes what some languages have that, for instance, English lacks:

Both French and German can distinguish between knowledge that results from recognition (respectively connaître and kennen) and knowledge that results from understanding (savoir and wissen). ... The Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino) while the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, not to be outdone, have a word for the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. (Wouldn't they just?) It's sgriob. And we have nothing in English to match ... the French sang-froid, the Russian glasnost, or the Spanish macho, so we must borrow the term from them or do without the sentiment. [p. 14] I am sure I love the Gaelic term for the sensation upon the upper lip just before one sips whiskey; if only I knew how to pronounce it.
Bryson also acknowledges:
[O]bjective evidence, even among the authorities, is not always easy to come by. Most books on English imply in one way or another that our language is superior to all others. In The English Language, Robert Burchfield writes: "As a source of intellectual power and entertainment the whole range of prose writing in English is probably unequalled anywhere else in the world." I would like to think he's right, but I can't help wondering if Mr. Burchfield would have made the same generous assertion had he been born Russian or German or Chinese. There is no reliable way of measuring the quality or efficiency of any language. Yet there are one or two small ways in which English has a demonstrable edge over other languages. [pp. 17-8] Here Bryson is at once humble and, dare I say, exultant. 'I would like to think he's right', he writes of Burchfield's 'generous assertion'.
I cannot cite passages at length, but in at least the first two chapters Bryson demonstrates a gentle wit, with the willingness to be a little more biting if the topic allows, and considerable breadth of research and knowledge, and it is something I expect he will show in the rest of the book. The Mother Tongue is more amusing than funny; it does not (yet, perhaps) contain the guffaw-inducing prose of, say, Neither Here Nor There, but it has so far been a good read. One passage on how infants learn language caught my attention and interest:

Much of what we know, or think we know, about the roots of language comes from watching children learn to speak. For a long time it was believed that language was simply learned. Just as we learn, say... our multiplication tables, so we must learn the "rules" of speech - that we don't say "house white is the," but rather "the house is white." The presumption was that our minds at birth were blank slates onto which the rules and quirks of our native language were written. But then other authorities, notably Noam Chomsky... began to challeneg this view, arguing that some structural facets of language - the ground rules of speech, if you like - must be innate. That isn't to suggest that you would have learned English spontaneously had you been brought up among wolves. But perhaps you are born with an instinctive sense of how language works, as a general thing. There are a number of reasons to suppose so. For one thing, we appear to have an innate appreciation of language. By the end of the first month of life infants show a clear preference for speechlike sounds over all others. It doesn't matter what language it is. To a baby no language is easier or more difficult than any other. ... [C]hildren seem to be programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk. The process has been called basic child grammar.
... Moreover, all children everywhere learn languages in much the same way: starting with simple labels ("Me"), advancing to subject-verb structures ("Me want"), before progressing to subject-verb-emphatics ("Me want now"), and so on. They even babble in the same way. A study... found that children from such diverse backgrounds as Arabic, English, Chinese, Spanish, and Norwegian all began babbling in a systematic way, making the same sounds at about the same time (four to six months before the start of saying their first words).
The semantic and grammatical idiosyncrasies that distinguish one language from another - inflections of tense, the use of gender, and so on - are the things that are generally learned last, after the child already has a functioning command of the language. Some aspects of language acquisition are puzzling: Children almost always learn to say no before yes and in before on, and all children everywhere go through a phase in which they become oddly fascinated with the idea of "gone" and "all gone." [pp. 25-7] Bryson's discussion of how children learn to speak is all too brief for my lights; I might have to look up some other books on the acquisition of language by children. I found this (not all of which I have quoted) to be one of the most interesting parts of the book.
Also of great interest to me was the discussion (pp. 21-34, in which the above discussion on how children acquire language) of the remote origin of 'Proto-Indo-European', the hypothetical root of nearly all European languages and some languages from other regions (such as, e.g., Sanskrit), but considerations of length forbid me from citing it.

It seems a bit odd that Bryson spends a chapter discussing the state of affairs of other languages (ch. 3; pp. 35-45), but of course these have an effect upon or are affected by the English language, so it should come as no surprise. Given my family's involvement with Japan, one passage that was of particular interest to me was:
The Japanese have no definite or indefinite articles corresponding to the English a, an, or the, and they do not distinguish betweeen singular and plural as we do with, say, ball/balls and child/children ... . [It] is hard to make a case for the absence in Japanese of a future tense. To them Tokyo e yukimasu means both "I go to Tokyo" and "I will go to Tokyo." To understand which sense is intended, you need to know the context. This lack of explicitness is a feature of Japanese - even to the point that they seldom use personal pronouns like me, my, and yours. Such words exist, but the Japanese employ them so sparingly that they might as well not have them. Over half of all Japanese sentences have no subject. They dislike giving a straightforward yes or no. It is no wonder that they are so often called inscrutable. [p. 36] From what I remember of (classical) Latin, it, like Japanese, has no articles; NT Greek has a definite article, corresponding to our 'the'. I will have to talk to the fam about their experience of learning Japanese and dealing with people daily who think and talk in such a circumlocutory language (not, of course, that speakers of English cannot be just as inscrutable or periphrastic).
Also of interest to me were the casual references to historical figures with whom many people would not be familiar, such as Leif Ericson or the Venerable Bede (p. 37), or the list of Irish literary greats on p. 45. Not that I fancy myself as especially well-educated or well-read, but it is nice to be able to recognise those, and other, people whom Bryson mentions.

Another part of the book I particularly enjoyed was the chapter on the origins of words in English (pp. 67-83). One feature of English is polysemy: '[t]he condition of [a word] having many meanings [p. 78]'. About polysemy, Bryson goes on to say:
Generally polysemy happens because one word sprouts a variety of meanings, but sometimes it is the other way around - similar but quite separate words evolve identical spellings. Boil in the sense of heating a pan of water and boil in the sense of an irruption of the skin are two unrelated words that simply happen to be spelled the same way. So are policy in the sense of a strategy or plan and the policy in a life insurance policy. Excise, meaning "to cut," is quite distinct in origin from excise in the sense of a customs duty. [p. 79] I have a story about polysemy in English, specifically regarding this second source of polysemic words (that is, words of distinct origin which have the same spelling, so that it appears to be one word with multiple, unrelated meanings). I fondly remember once writing a paper for a homiletics class in which, in a footnote, I complained about an author's use of the word 'duck' in discussing the postmodern theory of interpretation of Derrida (the book I was reviewing was Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, by James K. A. Smith). Smith, while endeavouring to argue for Derrida's theory (roughly, 'everything is interpreted by something else'), used the example of the word 'duck'; the context, he wrote, determines whether what is meant by it is a reference to the animal, or an imperative of action. I, at the time in a petty mood, pointed out that Smith, who described 'duck' in both cases as 'the same word' being applied differently based on context, had got it wrong; in fact 'duck' the animal and 'duck' the action are distinct words. That said, Smith's point with that example still holds, but that was not what I was griping about; but like I said, I was being petty.
On the subject of the origins of words in English, Bryson amuses while discussing two methods by which English gets new words, as well as four other means described by another linguist, Otto Jespersen, who is one of Bryson's major sources for The Mother Tongue. The first is 'borrowing them [words] from other languages' and the other is 'creating them by mistake. [p. 71]'

On pronunciation, one excellent witticism of Bryson's is: 'If there is one thing certain about English pronunciation it is that there is almost nothing certain about it. [p. 84]' Bryson goes on to list numerous words spelled with the same vowels but pronounced differently (on p. 85); e.g.; heard-beard, low-how, paid-said, and so on.

More pronunciation (on the way in which words gradually come to be pronounced the way they are spelled):

Many people today pronounced the t in often because it's there (even though they would never think to do it with soften, fasten, or hasten) and I suspect that the majority of people would be surprised to learn that the correct (or at least historic) pronunciation of waistcoat is "wess-kit," of victuals is "vittles," of forehead is "forrid," and of comptroller is "controller" (the one is simply a fancified spelling of the other). In all of these the sway of spelling is gradually proving irresistible. [p. 97] I was one who was so surprised, although I had seen the spellings 'weskit' and 'vittles' in The Lord of the Rings, as used by Sam's Gaffer, who inquired about 'vittles' at one point and complained about Sam's new 'weskit' ('I don't care for ironmongery, whether it wears well or no.'). But I didn't realise that 'wess-kit' was how you actually say the word 'waistcoat', and so on.

On pp. 120-1, Bryson discusses some of the difficulties of spelling (to which he dedicates a chapter, from pp. 117-33). Of course, he demonstrates, the spelling of English was not formalised for a long time, and, indeed, thanks to the difference between American and British English (not to mention Canadian English), there remain many words whose spellings differ. Interestingly, all (or nearly all) of the words Bryson lists on p. 121, all of which are misspelled, are loanwords from other languages. Arguably the words most commonly misspelled are such native English homonyms as where and were, your and you're, there and their, and so on, but in such cases it may be more accurate to say that what has really happened is that the wrong word has been chosen, because in, say, the sentence 'You're fly is down', no word has actually been spelled wrongly; it is just that 'you're' is the wrong word.

Going back a bit, Bryson writes (regarding words known as fossils on p. 80):
Occasionally, because the sense of the word has changed, fossil expressions are misleading. Consider the oft-quoted statement "the exception proves the rule." Most people take this to mean that the exception confirms the rule, though when you ask them to explain the logic in that statement, they usually cannot. After all, how can an exception prove a rule? It can't. The answer is that an earlier meaning of prove was to test (a meaning preserved in proving ground) and with that meaning the statement suddenly becomes sensible - the exception tests the rule. A similar misapprehension is often attached to the statement "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." Another example regarding the meaning of the word prove is in the carol 'Joy to the World', in which one verse goes: 'He rules the world with truth and grace / and makes the nations prove / the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.' The 'proving', in this case, really means 'testing'.
Probably the most interesting and useful part of The Mother Tongue is the chapter (pp. 134-46) on grammar, i.e., how the English language is in fact used. As Bryson labours to show, many rules about English grammar are not rules at all, or else are either on shaky ground or are recent inventions. Part of the problem is that English does not have, as it were, a native grammar - all, or most, of our grammatical terms and rules are imported from Latin and were applied originally to that language, which makes analysing and criticising English grammar difficult. (Indeed, Bryson goes on, first to show how poorly modern grammarians sometimes employ it [pp. 136-7], and then [on p. 137] to describe the folly of 'writing English grammars in that language [i.e., Latin]', such as [which is an example of Bryson's] De Recta et Emendata Linguae Anglicae Scriptione Dialogus of Sir Thomas Smith, published in 1568.)

Bryson himself notably does not discuss how English may be organised grammatically, beyond noting the difficulty of so doing (on pp. 134-5), and stating (on the subject of changes to the use and meaning of English words) that:
there is a case for resisting change - at least slapdash change. Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage. We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one's lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak. [pp. 145-6]
I would be interested to see contemporary English conventions of grammar. Since nearly all of my academic studies regarding grammar has been of languages other than English (French, Latin, and Greek), I am unable to describe English grammar on its own terms (although, as we have seen, it doesn't really have 'its own terms' by which to be described), but I can classify English words according to the rules of (as it were) alien grammars. Note, by the way, that I nearly used 'have been' in the second sentence, when the proper form is 'has been', because 'all', the subject of the verb 'to be' in that sentence, is in the singular, even though it refers to something which is collectively in the plural ('all of my academic studies'). English grammar is indeed tricky.

Regarding the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, a remarkable creation of which there is no equivalent in any other language, Bryson spends a mere three pages (pp. 158-60). Now, he admirably summarises its creation and the lives of some of the fascinating and odd characters who were instrumental in its making, but I suggest that those who want to know more about the monumental OED should read The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester, or (by the same author) The Professor and the Madman. To digress still more, it is interesting that many people are disproportionately interested in the part Tolkien played in the making of the OED, just because of his fame on other grounds. Of course, I am being a filthy hypocrite to write such a thing, since, I confess, I felt a pang of disappointment when, after reading Bryson's discussion of the OED, I saw that he did not mention Tolkien's contribution to it. (On the other hand, on p. 111, Bryson mentions Tolkien's effort, when at the University of Leeds, to 'record... the dialect words of England', about which I knew nothing, although he refers to him as 'the author of the Hobbit trilogy'.)

The Mother Tongue has few footnotes, but, like a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, such footnotes as it has are usually funny, such as this one, a note (on p. 147) about the many words for chemical substances which exist in English but which are not to be found in most dictionaries:
One of which [chemical substances], incidentally, is said to be the longest word in the English language. It begins methianylglutaminyl and finishes 1,913 letters later as alynalalanylthreonilarginylserase. I don't know what it is used for, though I daresay it would take some rubbing to get it out of the carpet.
Another great story (I am now no longer dealing with footnotes), which deserves (and probably has) its own book, is how America got its name:
Perhaps even more improbable [than the origin of the word 'dollar'] is how America came to be named in the first place. The name is taken from Americus Vespucius, a Latinized form of Amerigo Vespucci. A semiobscure Italian navigator who lived from 1454 to 1512, Vespucci made four voyages to the New World though without ever once seeing North America. A contemporary mapmaker wrongly thought Vespucci discovered the whole of the continent and, in the most literal way, put his name on the map. When he learned of his error, the mapmaker, one Martin Waldseemüller, took the name off, but by then it had stuck. Vespucci himself preferred the name Mundus Novus, "New World". [pp. 163-4]
More on Japanese (in the context of how English is used worldwide):
The Japanese are particular masters at the art of seizing a foreign word and alternatively beating it and aerating it until it sounds something like a native product. Thus the sumato (smart) and nyuu ritchi (newly rich) Japanese person seasons his or her conversation with upatodatu expressions like gurama foto (glamour photo), haikurasu (high class), kyapitaru gein (capital gain), and rushawa (rush hour). Sebiro, for a suit of clothes, looks convincingly native until you realize that it is a corruption of Savile Row, the London street where the finest suits are made. Occasionally the borrowed words grow. Productivity was stretched and mauled until it emerged as purodakuchibichi, which, despite its greater length, sits more comfortably on the Japanese tongue. ...
The most relentless borrowers of English words have been the Japanese. The number of English words current in Japanese has been estimated to be as high as 20,000. It has been said, not altogether wryly, that if the Japanese were required to pay a license fee for every word they used, the American trade deficit would vanish. A count of Western words, mostly English, used in Japanese newspapers in 1964 put the proportion at just under 10 percent. It would almost certainly be much higher now [and higher still twenty years after this book was initially published]. [pp. 183-5]
Bryson includes a list of a few English words converted into Japanese, such as nekutai for necktie or chiizu for cheese; for some reason he does not include what is probably the most well-known of such borrowings, besoburu (I am not sure I have spelled that correctly), from 'baseball'.

Bryson has still more to say about the Japanese, this time discussing the usefulness and need of an international language. If I may digress, when Bryson wrote The Mother Tongue, the most likely candidate for such a thing was English; if anything, English is now the de facto international language thanks to the explosive growth of the Internet and related phenomena (the social, or new, media; advances in communcations technology; &c.).
A... compelling reason for an international language is the frequency and gravity of misunderstandings owing to difficulties of translation. The 1905 draft of a treaty between Russia and Japan, written in both French and English, treated the English control and French contrôler as synonyms, when in fact the English form means "to dominate or hold power" while the French means simply "to inspect." The treaty nearly fell apart as a result. The Japanese involvement in World War II may have been inadvertently prolonged when the Domei news agency, the official government information service, rendered the word mokusatsu as "ignore" when the sense intended was that of "reserving a reply until we have had time to consider the matter more carefully." Bryson's example here seems curiously truncated. After all, just what is it that was being alternatively ignored or considered more carefully? It happens that it was the Potsdam Declaration, issued in late July 1945, which, although it contained no reference to the atomic bomb, urged Japan to surrender or face 'prompt and utter destruction'. And in Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix (pp. 500-1) argues that the translation 'ignore' for mokusatsu is the more accurate although, unsurprisingly, he makes no mention of The Mother Tongue, seeing how it is hardly a critical study of the official response by the government of Japan to the Potsdam Declaration. Thus, the phrase 'the Japanese involvement in World War II, &c.' turns out to be a circumlocution for 'the use of atomic bombs on Japan'; in which case what follows is somewhat ironic, and the last sentence just quoted a bit of softpedalling on Bryson's part (if, that is, Bix is to be believed).
That may seem a remarkably wide chasm between meanings, but Japanese is particularly susceptible to such discrepancy because it is at once so dense and complex and yet so full of subtlety. It has been suggested, in fact, that it is probably not possible to give accurate simultaneous Japanese-English translations because of the yawning disparity between how the two languages function. ... The Japanese... have a cultural aversion to directness and are often reluctant to give a simple yes or no answer. When a Japanese says "Kangae sasete kudasai" ("Let me think about it") or "Zensho shimasu" ("I will do my best") he actually means "no." This has led many business people, and on at least one occasion the president of the United States, to go away thinking they had an agreement or understanding that did not actually exist.
... Having said all that, we have a well-practiced gift for obfuscation in the English-speaking world. [pp. 188-9] Indeed, as I have observed with Bryson's own work. I myself, meanwhile, have said 'I'll think about it' but meant 'no' from time to time, and I am sure that such polite euphemistic refusals abound.
We also, Bryson notes, have both an appalling lack of interest in learning other languages, and a self-destructive, not to say idiotic, complacency regarding our own:
We in the English-speaking world have often been highly complacent in expecting others to learn English without our making anything like the same effort in return. As of 1986, the number of American students studying Russian was 25,000. The number of Russian students studying English was four million - giving a ratio of 160 to one in the Soviet's favor. How quaint; however, I suspect that in real numbers the ratio between Russians and Americans studying the other's language remains high in Russia's favour. In 1986, the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung investigated the studying of German as a foreign language around the world. In the United States, the number of college students taking a German course was 120,000 down from 216,000 in 1966. In the Soviet Union, the number was nine million. The problem is unlikely to get better. Between 1966 and 1986, 150 American colleges and universities canceled their German programs. In 1989, some 77 percent of all new college graduates had taken no foreign language courses. I would love to see what the numbers are today with respect to these.
A presidential commission under Ronald Reagan called the situation scandalous. In 1987, in an effort to redress the balance Congress voted into law the Education for Economic Security Act, which provided an extra $2.45 million to promote the study of foreign languages - or a little over one cent per person in the country. That should really turn the tables. Brilliant. There is evidence to suggest (again brilliant) that some members of Congress aren't fully sympathetic with the necessity for a commercial nation to be multilingual. As one congressman quite seriously told... [the] head of the Joint National Committee on Languages, "if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me." [information re: citation omitted]
Not only are we not doing terribly well at foreign languages, we're not even doing terribly well at English. The problem was well voiced by Professor Randolph Quirk, president of the British Academy and one of that country's leading linguistic scholars, when he wrote: "It would be ironic indeed if the millions of children in Germany, Japan and China who are diligently learning the language of Shakespeare and Eliot took more care in their use of English and showed more pride in their achievement than those for whom it is the native tongue." The which is arguably the case, I dare say (or is that daresay?). Interestingly, the only anecdote Bryson refers to with regard to this matter is as follows.
We might sometimes wonder if we are the most responsible custodians of our own tongue, especially when we reflect that the Oxford University Press sells as many copies of the Oxford English Dictionary in Japan as it does in America, and a third more than in Britain. [pp. 194-5] Although this is superficially worrisome, I am not sure that it follows from the sales of the OED that native English speakers are less able to use English than, say, the many Japanese who have a copy thereof. However, I expect that hundreds - indeed, hundreds of thousands - of papers written by high school and even university students could be displayed to demonstrate just how poorly we know and use our own language.
Moving along. With respect to Bryson's discussion of names, especially of English names (that is, of the names of some people and places of England), I shall refrain from comment, save to say that some of them must be seen to be believed. Except I will quote this gem of a passage [p. 206]:
[A]ll of this [discussion of place names in Britain] isn't even to begin to mention Wales where you can find towns and villages with names that look like Scrabble leftovers, among them Bwlchtocyn, Llwynddyrys, Cwmtwrch, Mwnt, Pwllheli, which are pronounced respectively - oh, to hell with it.
Now I would like to comment upon Bryon's discussion of swearing; thus I need to warn one and all that I will be using 'dirty' words for the next little while.

First, yet more interesting trivia about the Japanese: they 'do not have native swear words [p. 214]'; at least, not according to Bryson. I would be interested to know just what they do say and where it comes from.


English is unusual in including the impossible and the pleasurable in its litany of profanities. It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncrasy of our tongue that when we wish to express extreme fury we entreat the object of our rage to undertake an anatomical impossibility or, stranger still, to engage in the one activity that is bound to give him more pleasure than almost anything else. Can there be, when you think about it, a more improbable sentiment than "Get fucked!" We might as well snarl, "Make a lot of money!" or "Have a nice day!" [p. 215] This reminds me of a passage in Terry Pratchett's novel Feet of Clay in which a character complains (while under the mistaken impression that he is of noble birth and might be able to sell it for a small fortune), to the disbelief of all around him, ' "'Cos ... what good'd a lot of moneneney do me, hey?"' (He is also, at this point, quite drunk.) The response to this: 'The clientele looked puzzled. This seemed to be a question on the lines of "Alcohol, is it nice?", or "Hard work, do you want to do it?"'
More on the curse of choice in the English language:
After O.K. [about which see pp. 164-7], fuck must be about the most versatile of all English words. It can be used to describe a multitude of conditions and phenomena[.] [p. 216]
And on the changes in English as to which words are considered indecent:
The emotional charge attached to words can change dramatically over time. ... The City of London once had an alley favored by prostitutes called Gropecuntlane. Is it wrong to think that this is one of the funniest names for a street? Imagine living on it and having to give your address. Sadly, it appears that not one municipality in Britain blessed with a street by that name has retained it, choosing, instead to change it to something else. ... Piss was an unexceptionable word from about 1250 to 1750, a fact still reflected in the common French name for urinals: pissoirs. On the other hand, words that seem entirely harmless now were more capable of exciting considerable passion. In sixteenth-century England, zooterkins was a pretty lively word. In nineteenth-century England puppy and cad were highly risqué. [p. 217; see pp. 217-8 for more on words which have passed into or out of the 'dirty' category.] I imagine a lot of words once considered indecent not that long ago are now used in everyday conversation; I wonder whether there are any words now considered indecent which weren't before?
Another passage of interest (and for those less interested in cussing, my last marginal comment on the subject):
... Barnacle Bill the Sailor was originally Ballocky Bill and the original words of his ballad were considerably more graphic and sexual than the innocent phrases beloved by generations of children. [pp. 223-4] I wish I knew who Barnacle Bill is and was familiar with his ballad, because this looks like quite the story.
On to the rather more harmless subject of wordplay. Plays on words are probably about as old as language itself, and Bryson cites a number of examples:
Among the earliest instances of wordplay, Augarde cites a Greek anagram dating from the third century B.C. and, earlier still, a lipogram by the Greek Lasus from the fifth century B. C. in which the poet intentionally avoided using the letter s. So it is safe to say that wordplay is very old and effectively universal. Although Bryson does not here cite any examples of wordplay from other parts of the world; still, he is probably right. Even Christ reputedly made a pun when He said: "Thou art Peter: upon this rock I shall build my Church." It doesn't make a lot of sense from the wordplay point of view until you realize that in ancient Greek the word for Peter and for rock was the same. [p. 227]
More wordplay:
Shakespeare so loved puns that he put 3,000 of them - that's right 3,000 - into his plays, even to the extent of inserting them in the most seemingly inappropriate places, as when in King Henry IV, Part 1, the father of Hotspur learns of his son's tragic death and remarks that Hotspur is now Coldspur. Brilliant.
And we learn of the French holorime, which is 'a two-line poem in which each line is pronounced the same but uses different words. ... [S]ense often takes a backseat to euphony in these contrivances[.] [p. 231]' This form of wordplay does not seem to have caught on in English, so far as I can tell, but the potential example of 'the girl with kaleidoscope eyes / the girl with colitis goes by' (see p. 232) reminds me of mondegreens, although such should perhaps not be thought of as wordplay since they involve accidentally misunderstanding the lyrics of songs or other words heard. Indeed, that is probably why Bryson doesn't mention them, although he could well have as the term was coined in the fifties.

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses the future of English. In the late eighties, many English-speaking Americans became concerned about the large numbers of non-English speakers (mainly Hispanics) pouring into the country, to the extent that at least one pressure group (it would now be called a lobby group), U.S. English, to be formed (see pp. 239-40). About it, Bryson writes:
U.S. English and other such groups maintain that linguistic divisions have caused unrest in several countries, such as Canada and Belgium - though they generally fail to note that the countries where strife and violence have been most pronounced, such as Spain, are the ones where minority languages have been most strenuously suppressed. It is interesting to speculate also whether the members of U.S. English would be so enthusiastic about language regulations if they were transferred to Quebec and found their own language effectively outlawed. [p. 240] Indeed.
Bryson's final word on whether English needs protection is to quote Geoffrey D. Nunberg, then a linguist at Stanford University: '"The English language needs official protection about as much as the Boston Celtics need elevator shoes." [p. 241]' This is a sentiment with which I agree.

Last of all, Bryson notes that worrying about how well students know English is as old as the hills (on pp. 241-2), and argues that it is unlikely, as some have asserted, that the English spoken in different parts of the world (e.g., in America, Australia, or Britain) will become so different as to effectively become different languages. Rather, he points out, the advances in communications technology means that speakers of English everywhere will become more, not less, connected. He concludes (on p. 245):
If we should be worrying about anything to do with the future of English, it should be not that the various strands will drift apart but that they will grow indistinguishable. And what a sad, sad loss that would be. To which I say, Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I review all comments before posting. Feel free to disagree with what I or someone else writes, but be polite.