cover image The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

Bill Bryson. William Morrow & Company, $18.95 (270pp) ISBN 978-0-688-07895-9

Linguistics as pop science: Mario Pei's works, such as The Story of Language , have shown how this formula can fascinate, and Bryson's ( The Lost Continent ) blend of linguistic anecdote and Anglo-Saxon cultural history likewise keeps us turning pages. Depth of treatment is not, however, to be found here. Bryson, who wants to see comedy in the English language's quest for hegemony in the modern world, strives for entertaining ironies. While his historical review is thorough, replete with enlightening scholarly citations, he mostly reiterates conventional views about English's structural superiority, asserting that the language dominates the globe today by virtue of its lack of inflection and its ``democratic'' suppleness in accommodating new forms. He retells old tales with fresh verve, and his review of the spelling reform movement has particular merit, but Bryson becomes sloppy when matters of rhetoric and grammar arise, e.g., ``He Shakespeare even used adverbs as nouns, as with `that bastardly rogue,' '' and in presenting his opinions (Samuel Johnson's prose is deemed ``rambling''). BOMC main selection . (July)