October 14, 2015 by ethelfritha
There’s a temptation, when discussing something as intimate to the identity of a culture as language, to take a self-congratulatory tone about it, as if the people who speak it are personally responsible for its development and virtues. If the sheer number of books at the Foothills Branch Library examining every possible aspect of the English language is any indication, we are uniquely susceptible to this sort of shoulder-kissing. After all, English is the language of the Internet, the accepted linguistic currency of the world, and that is not terribly likely to change anytime soon. It’s easy to rah-rah-sis-boom-bah about how great you are when you’re at the top of the heap.
Luckily, Bryson manages a tone of genuine humor in The Mother Tongue, without the faux-deprecating humblebrag quality that marks other books like it. English is, after all, an interesting and complex language, with a unique history and place in the world–there’s no need to coyly pretend it isn’t so. But it’s also practically begging to be made fun of–those silent e’s! The nine hundred and twelve different senses of the word “set”! The sheer effrontery of it–the way it amasses the vocabulary of other languages and has the nerve to call it “English”! Bryson is able to talk about all the ways in which English really is remarkable, while still reminding us that we’re merely the recipients of a ridiculous–and complicated–legacy, not the personal victors of some bloody linguistic war.