It’s Not All Mary Poppins

SaBloBoMo, my not-quite-daily book of the day continues: the mother tongue

I love Bill Bryson.

This will undoubtedly come as a surprise to him, but he strikes me as the kind of man who could manage the shock.

I’ve read a bunch of his books, starting with my still-favourite, “Notes from a Small Island”, a book which had me crying with laughter at points, and which started my mild Bryson addiction. Today’s book, the mother tongue, english and how it got that way, is a book I have read so many times that my sweetie (Stephen, not Bill) finally buckled down and bought it for me at Christmas. (On a budget as snug as ours, one does not buy books willy-nilly.)

My own copy! That I can write in!!

This book is so full of tidbits that’s it’s impossible to write a brief summary. Reading it of an evening turns me into that most annoying of spouses, the one who, when all are quietly immersed in their books, suddenly ruptures the peaceful air with raucous cackles and demands, “Oh! Listen to THIS!”

The blurb in the back cover actually says it well:

With…wit and…insight, bestselling author Bill Bryson…explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience, and sheer fun of the Englsh language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can’t) to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world’s largest growth industries.

Turns out a lot of the oddities of our complex and idiosyncratic language aren’t random – they have a reason.

Our weird spelling? Blame the printing press. With its advent into England, spelling, which had prior to that been entirely a matter of personal choice, became much more standardized. “Unluckily for us,” Bryson notes, this occurred

just at the time when the language was undergoing one of those great phonetic seizures that periodically unsettle any tongue. The result is that we have today in English a body of spellings that, for the most part, faithfully reflect the pronunciations of people living 400 years ago. In Chaucer’s day, the k was still pronounced in words like knee and know. Knight would have sounded (more or less) like “kuh-nee-guh-tuh”, with every letter enunciated.

(My Middle English prof., speaker of some seven languages and reader of even more, gave us a more Germanic pronunciation – “kuh-nicht”, with the “ch” in there being pronounced as the Germans do, an abrasive sound well back in the throat. The sound some of my son’s less desirable agemates make when preparing to befoul city sidewalks…)

Hey, listen to this. Did you know that the letter cluster ough can be pronounced eight ways?* (Though three of them are largely irrelevant to North Americans, there are still officially eight in the language.)

Oh, and have you heard of the lost word “ugsome” – isn’t it great? Yes, it means horrible. What else could it mean? (But you can’t use it to describe the contents of your baby’s diapers – we have a word for that: noisesome, which, oddly, has nothing to do with sound. Bet Bill knows why!)

Did you know that English is the only language that has enough synonyms to warrant a Thesaurus? (Wait, now I can’t find it in the book. I’m sure it’s in here. Where did I read that?)

Oh, and that the OED spells “Shakespeare” as “Shakspere”, though it “grudgingly acknowledges that the commonest spelling “‘is perh. Shakespeare.’ (To which we might add, it cert. is.)”

What do the surnames Ferrier, Ferraro, Herrero, Kovacs, and Kuznetov have in common?**

Oh, listen to this!!

It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncrasy of our tongue [which I have noted, as it happens] that when we wish to express extreme fury we entreat the object of our rage to undertake an anatimical impossibility or, stranger still, to engage in the one activity that is bound to give him more pleasure than almost anything else. Can there be, when you think about it, a more improbably sentiment than, “Get fucked!” We might as well snarl, “Make a lot of money!”

Ha! How about this — what? Oh, okay. I’ll stop now.

But really, it’s a great read. Bound to educate and entertain you while irritating all within radius of your snickering and exclaiming. Great fun!

*though, through, thought, tough, thorough; additionally hiccough (hiccup, over here), plough (mostly plow), and lough (“an Irish-English word for lake or loch, pronounced roughly as the latter”).

**they all mean Smith. (I didn’t include the German Schmidt – that would’ve made it too easy!)
© 2006, Mary P

January 7, 2007 Posted by | books, memes and quizzes | 10 Comments