Review: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

by First Mate Keira

Title: The Mother Tongue
Author: Bill Bryson
Format: Paperback
Page Count: 245
Grade Reading Level: Ages 16+

Why I read this book:

It was loaned to me by a friend who knew how much I enjoyed English.

Why you should read this book:

The Mother Tongue is a non-fiction work that as the cover says is about English and how it got that way. I love words, so this book really struck a cord with me. I have soaked up more useless trivia by reading this than a sponge. Valuable trivia too. 😉 Some of which I’ve included below the review.

It’s not a YA book by any stretch of the imagination, however, I would fully recommend it to high school students prepping for standardized tests. College students too for that matter, for the same reasons. It’s a fascinating, in-depth look into English. Bryson explains word structure, changes, and definitions while at the same time comparing English to other languages. I imagine anybody who takes the time to read this book will pass the language side of any standardized test (SAT, ACT, GRE) with flying colors.

My Top 10 Favorite Trivia from the Mother Tongue:

(Heavy on the paraphrasing)

  1. Slurvian is what the slurring of words is called.
  2. Chopping syllables off the front of a word is aphesis, apocope when it’s off the back, and syncope when it’s from the middle.
  3. Shakespeare was a master wordsmith. He created a new word once every ten words in his plays. That’s approximately 2000 words. This does not include his phrases that stick around to this day in common use.
  4. Ough can be pronounced 8 ways: through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough, and lough. Can you guess which is chough? The estimate is that only 1 person in 100 can be truly sure they got it right.
  5. English has more than 100 prefixes and suffixes in regular use.
  6. Harlot used to mean boy. (I take such pleasure out of that as a romance reader… haha.) Girl used to be any young person.
  7. We hear words faster than we can speak them; that’s why we have answers to questions before they’re finished being asked. Our desire to talk as fast as we hear is partially the reason behind mispronunciations and slurring.
  8. Th is probably one of the hardest sounds for non-native English speaking Asians to say. That and the el sound. They usually get pronounced as efs and ars accordingly.
  9. No letter in the English alphabet is pronounced the same way consistently in words. They all change depending on the other letters associated with the letter in question.
  10. The schwa, or upside down e, which looks like this ǝ, is the most common vowel sound in the English language. It features in nearly every multisyllabic word.

I’ll leave it there, but trust me, there’s so much more to discover. Your mind will be blown and you’ll probably wonder at some point while reading it how you could ever have learned English to begin with… but you’ll also be glad to know English because of how rich the depth of it can be.

Buy: The Mother Tongue

Rating: 5 Treasure Chests

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  1. Alice

    I had this book as a Lit assignment for my class (10th grade/Sophomore). I assumed it would be some wordy, textual book, but it really turned out to be a fun read. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to swearing! Gotta love that. Great book, would (and have) recommend to other people. 5/5

  2. Is it appropriate as a textbook for 7th grade students in a “world language” class?

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