Monday, January 8, 2018

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

I picked this up because it sounded fun (and it's always good to know about the language I grew up speaking) and I found this to be a fun, topical look at the English language.

The Mother Tongue starts off with an introduction of English, moves on to the topic of language in general and the history of English, and then goes on to explore various aspects of the language, such as spelling, dialects, and why Americans speak different English.

The prose is readable and the topics are engaging. And from what I can find, what he says about the English language is supported by other researchers.

But, I would advise everyone to take what he says about foreign languages with a large grain of salt. In the introduction, he says that “In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair.’” Obviously, I was surprised by this because I’ve never heard this, not even as a slang word. After some googling, the closest word I could find that resembles what he says is バタ臭い (bata kusai), which translates to “stinks of butter.” It’s a Showa-era term that is now obsolete. However, the online dictionaries have it defined as referring to something or someone that looks Western, sort of like the term “Banana”.

He also says that in China, the telephone is “te le fung”, which surprised me because I always thought it was 电话 (dianhua). But I’ll admit that my Chinese isn’t the best, not to mention that Singaporean Chinese is slightly different from Mainland Chinese, and it might be another obsolete/regional word.

If you’re a fan of the English language and would like to know more about its history and peculiarities, you’ll want to read it. Just be suspicious about claims regarding foreign languages.


  1. Bill Bryson is very popular, from what I've heard. I haven't read his work, however. This does sound like an interesting book. Especially as my daughter is learning to read, I have become even more interested in the English language and its history. That is really too bad about his use of other languages. Someone like me would have taken him at face value.

    1. I would have too, if I didn't know Japanese/Chinese :p I'd like to believe that he's accurate about the English parts though!


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