The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

By Bill Bryson; Published In 1990
Genres: Nonfiction, Humor, History, Humanities, Language
A foreigner could be excused for thinking that to know set is to know English.

As recently as the eighteenth century, England happily installed a German king, George I, even though he spoke not a word of English and reigned for thirteen years without mastering his subjects’ language. Common people did not expect to speak like their masters any more than they expected to live like them.

At a conference of sociologists in America in 1977, love was defined as “the cognitive-affective state characterized by intrusive and obsessive fantasizing concerning reciprocity of amorant feelings by the object of the amorance.

At a conference of sociologists in America in 1977, love was defined as "the cognitive-affective state characterized by intrusive and obsessive fantasizing concerning reciprocity of amorant feelings by the object of the amorance." That is jargon - the practice of never calling a spade a spade when you might instead call it a manual earth-restructuring implement - and it is one of the great curses of modern English.


Consider that in Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, not the mail, while in America the Postal Service delivers the mail, not the post. These

English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget’s Thesaurus. “Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist” [The Miracle of Language, page 54].

Equally arresting are British pub names. Other people are content to dub their drinking establishment with pedestrian names like Harry’s Bar and the Greenwood Lounge. But a Briton, when he wants to sup ale, must find his way to the Dog and Duck, the Goose and Firkin, the Flying Spoon, or the Spotted Dog. The names of Britain’s 70,000 or so pubs cover a broad range, running from the inspired to the improbable, from the deft to the daft. Almost any name will do so long as it is at least faintly absurd, unconnected with the name of the owner, and entirely lacking in any suggestion of drinking, conversing, and enjoying oneself. At a minimum the name should puzzle foreigners-this is a basic requirement of most British institutions-and ideally it should excite long and inconclusive debate, defy all logical explanation, and evoke images that border on the surreal.

Hitler and Mussolini even went so far as to persecute Esperanto speakers.

However, what America does possess in abundance is a legacy of colorful names. A mere sampling: Chocolate Bayou, Dime Box, Ding Dong, and Lick Skillet, Texas; Sweet Gum Head, Louisiana; Whynot, Mississippi; Zzyzx Springs, California; Coldass Creek, Stiffknee Knob, and Rabbit Shuffle, North Carolina; Scratch Ankle, Alabama; Fertile, Minnesota; Climax, Michigan; Intercourse, Pennsylvania; Breakabeen, New York; What Cheer, Iowa; Bear Wallow, Mud Lick, Minnie Mousie, Eighty-Eight, and Bug, Kentucky; Dull, Only, Peeled Chestnut, Defeated, and Nameless, Tennessee; Cozy Corners, Wisconsin; Humptulips, Washington; Hog Heaven, Idaho; Ninety-Six, South Carolina; Potato Neck, Maryland; Why, Arizona; Dead Bastard Peak, Crazy Woman Creek, and the unsurpassable Maggie’s Nipples, Wyoming.

If we should be worrying about anything to do with the future of English, it should not be that the various strands will drift apart but that they will grow indistinguishable. And what a sad, sad loss that would be.

In the country inns of a small corner of northern Germany, in the spur of land connecting Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, you can sometimes hear people talking in what sounds eerily like a lost dialect of English. Occasional snatches of it even make sense, as when they say that the “veather ist cold” or inquire of the time by asking, “What ist de clock?” According to Professor Hubertus Menke, head of the German Department at Kiel University, the language is “very close to the way people spoke in Britain more than 1,000 years ago.” [Quoted in The Independent, July 6, 1987.] This shouldn’t entirely surprise us. This area of Germany, called Angeln, was once the seat of the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that 1,500 years ago crossed the North Sea to Britain, where they displaced the native Celts and gave the world what would one day become its most prominent language.

It has sometimes been said that prudery reached such a height in the nineteenth century that people took to dressing their piano legs in little skirts lest they rouse anyone to untimely passion. Thomas

It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between “I wrote” and “I have written.” The Spanish cannot differentiate a chairman from a president, and the Italians have no equivalent of wishful thinking. In Russia there are no native words for efficiency, challenge, engagement ring, have fun, or take care [all cited in The New York Times, June 18, 1989]. English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget’s Thesaurus. “Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist” [The Miracle of Language, page 54]. On the other hand, other languages have facilities we lack. Both French and German can distinguish between knowledge that results from recognition (respectively connaître and kennen) and knowledge that results from understanding (savoir and wissen). Portuguese has words that differentiate between an interior angle and an exterior one. All the Romance languages can distinguish between something that leaks into and something that leaks out of. The Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino) while the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, not to be outdone, have a word for the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. (Wouldn’t they just?) It’s sgriob. And we have nothing in English to match the Danish hygge (meaning “instantly satisfying and cozy”), the French sang-froid, the Russian glasnost, or the Spanish macho, so we must borrow the term from them or do without the sentiment. At the same time, some languages have words that we may be pleased to do without. The existence in German of a word like schadenfreude (taking delight in the misfortune of others) perhaps tells us as much about Teutonic sensitivity as it does about their neologistic versatility. Much the same could be said about the curious and monumentally unpronounceable Highland Scottish word sgiomlaireachd, which means “the habit of dropping in at mealtimes.” That surely conveys a world of information about the hazards of Highland life—not to mention the hazards of Highland orthography. Of

Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.

Linguist say parties in the conversation will tolerate silence for four seconds before interjecting anything, however unrelated.

More recently, during a debate in the House of Lords in 1978 one of the members said: "If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is." (We should perhaps bear in mind that the House of Lords is a largely powerless, nonelective institution. It is an arresting fact of British political life that a Briton can enjoy a national platform and exalted status because he is the residue of an illicit coupling 300 years before between a monarch and an orange seller.)

People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis. Syllables, words, sentences run together like a watercolor left in the rain. To understand what anyone is saying to us we must separate these noises into words and the words into sentences so that we might in our turn issue a stream of mixed sounds in response. If what we say is suitably apt and amusing, the listener will show his delight by emitting a series of uncontrolled high-pitched noises, accompanied by sharp intakes of breath of the sort normally associated with a seizure or heart failure. And by these means we converse. Talking, when you think about it, is a very strange business indeed.

person says to you, “How do you do?” he will be taken aback if you reply, with impeccable logic, “How do I do what?” The complexities of the English language are

polysemy, and it is very common. Sound is another polysemic word.

Shakespeare used 17,677 words in his writings, of which at least one-tenth had never been used before. Imagine if every tenth word you wrote were original. It is a staggering display of ingenuity. But

Some aspects of language acquisition are puzzling: Children almost always learn to say no before yes and in before on, and all children everywhere go through a phase in which they become oddly fascinated with the idea of “gone” and “all gone.

Some of the changes since Shakespeare’s time are obvious. Thee and thou had already begun a long decline (though they still exist in some dialects of northern England). Originally thou was to you as in French tu is to vous. Thou signified either close familiarity or social inferiority, while you was the more impersonal and general term. In European languages to this day choosing between the two forms can present a very real social agony. As Jespersen, a Dane who appreciated these things, put it: “English has thus attained the only manner of address worthy of a nation that respects the elementary rights of each individual” [The Growth and Structure of the English Language, page 251].

Sometimes the pronunciation changed, as between bath and bathe and as with the “s” in house becoming a “z” in houses. And sometimes, to the eternal confusion of non-English speakers, these things happened all together, so that we have not only the spelling doublet life/lives but also the pronunciation doublet “l?ves” and “l?ves” as in “a cat with nine lives lives next door.

The poet Robert Browning caused considerable consternation by including the word twat in one of his poems, thinking it an innocent term. The work was Pippa Passes, written in 1841 and now remembered for the line "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world." But it also contains this disconcerting passage:

Then owls and bats

Cowls and twats

Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods,

Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning had apparently somewhere come across the word twat--which meant precisely the same then as it does now--but pronounced it with a flat a and somehow took it to mean a piece of headgear for nuns. The verse became a source of twittering amusement for generations of schoolboys and a perennial embarrassment to their elders, but the word was never altered and Browning was allowed to live out his life in wholesome ignorance because no one could think of a suitably delicate way of explaining his mistake to him.

These Cro-Magnon people were identical to us: they had the same physique, the same brain, the same looks. And, unlike all previous hominids who roamed the earth, they could choke on food. That may seem a trifling point, but the slight evolutionary change that pushed man's larynx deeper into his throat, and thus made choking a possibility, also brought with it the possibility of sophisticated, well articulated speech.
Other mammals have no contact between their air passages and oesophagi. They can breathe and swallow at the same time, and there is no possibility of food going down the wrong way. But with Homo sapiens food and drink must pass over the larynx on the way to the gullet and thus there is a constant risk that some will be inadvertently inhaled. In modern humans, the lowered larynx isn't in position from birth. It descends sometime between the ages of three and five months - curiously, the precise period when babies are likely to suffer from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At all events, the descended larynx explains why you can speak and your dog cannot.

To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.

when a person says to you, “How do you do?” he will be taken aback if you reply, with impeccable logic, “How do I do what?” The complexities of the English language are

Whereas the food debris of the Neanderthals shows a wide variety of animal bones, suggesting that they took whatever they could find, archaeological remnants from Homo sapiens show that they sought out particular kinds of game and tracked animals seasonally. All of this strongly suggests that they possessed a linguistic system sufficiently sophisticated to deal with concepts such as: “Today let’s kill some red deer. You take some big sticks and drive the deer out of the woods and we’ll stand by the riverbank with our spears and kill them as they come down towards us.” By comparison Neanderthal speech may have been something more like: “I’m hungry. Let’s hunt.

Yet it has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participial adjective. Its meanings are so various and scattered that it takes the OED 60,000 words—the length of a short novel—to discuss them all. A foreigner could be excused for thinking that to know set is to know English.