Friday, November 19, 2010

Mother Tongue

The most dire social faux pas possible may well and truly be a lull in conversation. Awkward silences don’t just prejudice newly acquainted persons; it may pop up in friendships fostered since childhood. Nothing stings more than a steady drip of silence, it is enough to drive anyone insane or suddenly develop an expert grasp of Meteorology.

To save face at your next social outing, read “Mother Tongue”. The man with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Mr. Bill Bryson examines “how a second-rate, mongrel tongue came to be the undisputed language of the globe.”

Bryson has a brilliant talent of imparting information. He broaches topics in a relaxed, chatty manner that makes you feel if you were to run into him on the street you wouldn’t be at risk of shouldering a stony silence. However even with all his wit and enthusiasm, it’s “the endless versatility of English is what makes our rules of grammar so perplexing” and at times a trying read. So just like you won’t drink a bottle of straight cordial, I found that I had to take frequent breaks from “Mother Tongue”, diluting the overwhelming bombardment of facts with healthy doses of fiction.

Since reading the book, I’ve been regurgitating facts left, right and centre. Sure most are probably inaccurate, frankensteinian versions of the original statements – but gosh darn they add fuel to the fire. Like did you know that the Bell Telephone Laboratories detected that there are “more than ninety separate sounds just for the letter T” – heck I didn’t even know that such a laboratory existed.

With travel a topic never far from Bryson’s thoughts, the chapter on “Names” dovetails nicely into a delightful exploration of the historical context of English pub names. Some old pubs took the traditional approach of adopting a name influenced by the ruling monarch – such as “White Hart” (indicated loyalty to Richard II) or “Royal Oak” (commemorated Charles II). However when the crown changed hands (or heads) the name would have to be changed. So to avoid the expense, some public houses used popular catchphrases or puns such as “Romping Donkey” or “Ram Jam Inn”. While other names appear more obscure and may be because they have deviated from their original titles – “The Goat and Compasses” might have come from “God Encompasseth Us” and “The Elephant and Castle” may have been derived from “Infanta de Castille”.

From this cheerful recount of pub names, Bryson neatly jumps onto the topic of surnames. Bryson is the master of the seamless segway, managing to leap from descriptions of Norman scribes to American Spelling reforms. It is with this superior dexterity of language that Bryson manages to cover the origins to the future of English within a mere 244 pages.

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