I’m usually not that keen a reader of non-fiction, but I’ve been in the mood for something I wouldn’t get too emotionally involved in – I’m sure the fact that I empathise more with fiction than reality says damning things about me, but let’s not open that door – so I picked up American humorist Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue. As its title suggests, the book undertakes the pretty daunting task of summing up the world’s most widely used, most rapidly expanding, most profitably learned and probably most controversial means of human communication – the English language. That amounts to encapsulating the system of correspondence and capacity for expression of roughly a billion persons who speak it natively or as a second language, in about 300 pages. Not only does that sound difficult, but it also sounds kind of dull. Plus it’s usually rather tasteless when someone decides to panegyrise something that, already thriving, needs little encouragement by way of patronization.
But Bryson tackles the origins, the development and the current state of English with a generous dose of humour, rendering a potentially dry subject dripping in wit and charm, and leaving you thirsty for more. In fact, its bouts of self-deprecation make the entire narrative more neutral than aggrandizing: speaking of the sheer illogicality (is that a word? I think it should be) of the language, Bryson muses: “Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”
Comparisons with French, German, Japanese, Hindi etc. keep it from being too indulgent (here too enlivened with titbits like the fact that the Japanese word for ‘foreigner’ translates to ‘stinking of foreign hair’ and that a French phrase for ‘to be bored to death’ translates to ‘to be from Birmingham,’ which Bryson vouches is really quite true).
Little bits of trivia make it a surprising page-turner (forgive the shameless brand incorporation). Take the fact that the origins of the Indo-European languages are so tightly linked that a speaker of Lithuanian, a language largely unchanged over the years, can sometimes understand simple phrases in Sanskrit. Or that fact that Shakespeare actually invented one in every ten words he used. Excellent, lovely, hurry, homicide, monumental, castigate – all the result of the Bard’s creative chutzpah.
An often thought-provoking dissection of the structure of the language keeps it from being a mere collection of did-you-knows. The tendency to keep the Anglo-Saxon noun but to adopt a foreign form for the adjectival form, for example, results in fingers not being fingerish, but digital; eyes are not eyeish, but ocular. Just think of mouth|oral, water|aquatic, house|domestic, moon|lunar, son|filial, sun|solar, town|urban, and you’ll realise you’re well within your rights to think English a maddening language to learn.
It isn’t meant to be serious scholarship, but it does go into some historical and analytical depth. The narrative, however, always remains light and flitting. If you’re looking to embellish your conversation with some trivia (quite an understandable impulse), beware it was written in 1990 so some of the statistics are out-of-date, though not many.
I think it’s definitely an entertaining read, especially for the Indian reader, most often knee-deep in linguistic profusion himself.