Is the English Language "Special"?

Jan 4, 2009 (Updated Jan 4, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Entertaining and witty at times

Cons:Full of linguistic blunders - Bryson is out of his depth on this one!

The Bottom Line: Written in the usual witty, charming Bryson style, this book is too full of mistakes and nonsensical statements to be credible

I am not sure why, but people tend to give me Bill Bryson’s books as Christmas presents. Perhaps people do not know that I have a rather low opinion of Bill Bryson because, although he is somewhat witty (but often corny and predictable), he tends to write about things he knows nothing about, and I prefer to learn from people who are authorities in their field.  Anyone writing a book called “A short history of nearly anything” (got it two Christmases ago!) may sell a lot of books, but cannot be taken seriously by someone who wants some intellectual stimulation.

Knowing my interest in languages (or rather, my objective need to use many of them, with varying degrees of success), this time I received “Mother Tongue” (published by Penguin in 1990, 255 pages), a book that deals with the structure and the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

Book Contents

In this short book, Bryson gives us some basics of linguistics (chapter 2), then explores the role of a language in forging group identity (3); the history of the language follows (4), with a special section on etymologies (5), followed by a treatise on the difficulties and variability of English pronunciation, correctly stressing that English is almost uniquely, among the European languages, non-phonetic (6); he then deals with the standardization process (or lack thereof) of the various types of English language (7,8); there are, of course, plenty of comparisons between classical English and American English, including words and sentences that would be misunderstood by the other group; funny is the section on how English is butchered by people of other countries (but I think I have funnier examples), and finally sections on swearing and wordplays give the book a rather entertaining ending. This is a book that is easy to read and contains a lot of interesting gems and funny trivia about a lot of other languages, and this helps you make it through all the nonsense. It is painful, though, to see Bryson deal with a subject he knows little about.

Bill has an entertaining style, and probably believes he can absorb a lot of information from pedantic old books (which he cites) and recycle it in a funny, more readable fashion. He is selling well, so his approach is commercially successful. However, he is at his best when he talks about his travels. In this case, as funny as he may be, he cannot be excused for writing 255 pages of nonsense only because he can make it entertaining.

Bryson is no Linguist

Bryson sets out to demonstrate that English is a “unique” language. What makes it unique, as the reader who is at least bilingual finds out, is Bryson’s total ignorance of any language other than English. His introduction is an eye opener. He writes (Page 1):
Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells “a” lie but “the” truth…Well, this is the same in every language I know, simply because for every fact there is only one true version and many mendacious ones!
Bryson continues:…that an American who says ‘I could care less’ means the same as someone who says ‘I could not care less’? Well, that American is illiterate, and therefore wouldn’t the burden be on the American fellow to learn proper English as opposed to the foreigner having to learn all the possible ways in which an American can butcher his own language?

At this point my interest was piqued: only one page and already two moronic statements. I just went on to see how many more I could find. My expectations were not going to be disappointed!

Bill goes on to say that English has more words than other European languages, because the French only have ‘maison” for ‘home’ and ‘house’. Well, anyone having studied German knows that often one needs 3-4 English words to translate one German word, due to the relative poverty of the English lexicon. Those ‘shades of distinction’ available only to English speakers are the fruit of Bryson’s fantasy. In relation to the English speaker’s need for a Thesaurus, Bryson claims only English has one, and ‘most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist’. Of course, every European language has a thesaurus, and I can attest to the fact that the best German thesaurus on the market weighs three times your Noah Webster.  But perhaps the most outlandish claim about the English language occurs on page 5:
Not only can we say ‘I kicked the dog’, but also ‘the dog was kicked by me’, a construction that would be impossible in many other languages. I don’t know about you, but I have never heard of a language that does not possess the passive form!

A Collection of Linguistic Blunders

The chapter where Bryson analyzes the evolution of the English language sounds more authoritative, but perhaps only because I am no linguist. The only languages that I have studied to death are Italian and Latin, and I can assure you that almost every statement he makes about these two languages is incorrect, and in some cases he is unintentionally funny in his unbelievable blunders. I will only mention two egregious examples, due to space limitations: at one point he claims that Italian is so similar to Latin that there are ‘entire sentences’ that are identical in both languages. On the contrary, Italian has done away with cases and uses prepositions, and therefore there cannot be any such equivalent sentence. Indeed, our teachers, to show us how far Italian is from Latin, taught us a bunch of silly sentences that are the same in both languages and mean two totally different things. Example ‘I Vitelli dei romani sono belli’ which means, in Italian, ‘the calves of the Romans are beautiful’ and in Latin ‘March, Vitellius, to the war sound of the Roman god’. In another section, to show the influence of English on modern Italian, he claims that the Italian word ‘schiacchenze’ derives from the English ‘shake hands’. I even googled the word schiacchenze and only found Bryson’s published articles on it and some Italian web sites laughing at him for claiming this is an Italian word. A total mystery where he found this word! What do you make of a guy who claims the Italian word ‘brio’ is no longer used in Italy but only in the English language? Or one who claims the French do not use their own RSVP? (not only do they use it but, unlike most Americans, they actually know what it stands for!).

Mistakes like these apart, Bryson makes statements that only show how clueless he is, and even an amateur such as I can explain things he claims are mysterious. Why – asks Bryson – has English borrowed so little from German, and so much from Latin? No one knows, he says. Well, I do: German, English and Dutch originate from the same group of dialects, and their words often have the same roots. There is no reason to borrow the word ‘Landschaft’ from German or “landschap’ from Dutch to say ‘landscape’, because they are basically the same word! Indeed, English has borrowed nothing from the Dutch either. It is as stupid as saying that Italian has borrowed so little from Spanish and so much from English. Not a great mystery either, I believe.

At the same time, Bryson forgets an important contribution of German to American slang: Yiddish, which is a German dialect. Living in the NYC area, I learned at least 2-3 dozen Yiddish words commonly used by New Yorkers. OK, not too many Nebraskans would know what a ‘schlepp’ is, but how could he possibly forget this? Why isn’t there a section on English words that were created by misunderstanding the language of origin (say ‘kangaroo’ or ‘exit’)? Why isn’t there a section on the pitfalls of punctuation and the tricks of hyphenation (too boring, perhaps)? Why does Bryson seem to believe that English phonetic variability is more complex than those of any other language?

In several sections of the book, Bryson attacks those ‘ivory tower specialists’ who insist on imposing a Latin grammatical structure on modern languages, when Latin is a dead language. As far as I know, all European languages use the same grammatical structure developed by the Greeks, and simplified by the Romans. We all use different words, embedded in a grammar that has basically the same elements in each language. While English has dramatically simplified the basic Latin grammar, Italian only to some extent, and German only to a little extent (look at their declensions and complex word order!), the structure remains obviously the same. What grammatical structure would Bryson rather use? Japanese? Or something made up as we go along?

I could go on forever exposing Bryson’s blunders and I am only proficient in a few languages. Imagine what would happen if the book were to be scrutinized by a bunch of experts! Luckily for Bill they, unlike me during the holidays,  have something better to do than read Bryson’s BS.

Final Recommendation

In the end, I cannot recommend this book, because it can have no credibility. Although it is funny at times, the humor is a cheap one, often achieved at the expense of foreigners writing in bad English or Japanese ‘japanizing’ English expressions (‘apatudeitu’ means ‘up to date’). There are bound to be better books out there on the topic, written by more knowledgeable writers.

Bryson’s provincial idea that English is somehow ‘special’ in its richness and complexity among Western languages can be easily dismissed by anyone who knows other languages. In fact, European languages all have a similar number of words, similar concepts and similar grammar. What makes English unusual is the poor correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. And what makes English the easiest language to learn is its simple grammar. This, coupled with the military and commercial influence of the UK and the USA, explains why English is now becoming a world language, and the official language for most business transactions all over the words.  The simplicity of its grammar makes English, unlike Latin, a ‘democratic’ language (almost anyone is able to use it at a basic level), but also contributes to its relative poverty of expression. Languages like German tend to be more twisted and complex, but also have a richness, through their intricate grammatical structure, that gives them the ability to express nuances that English cannot match. It takes an ignoramus like Bryson to state the contrary.

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