The Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

I don’t need this book.

I don’t meant to say that in any kind of mean way. It simply that I didn’t need to read this book. I used to think that reading was largely for the sake of accumulating knowledge. This is wrong, and no pleasant way to live life really, but it was how I operated for some time. That kind of reasoning would lead a person like me not really enjoy a book like Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.

The Mother Tongue is a quick and easy look at the English Language, and discuss things about how English got the way it is, with each chapter focusing on a specific point. It is a lay-person’s book on linguistics, and while my expertise is not on English specifically, at this point in my life I don’t think I am in any way a layperson. So why bother reading this book at all?

Here is the thing: I am very good at broad strokes, theory, generalizations. I do not, however, have a brain for specifics. Never did, unfortunately. I know a lot about linguistics, but what I remember really just seems to be relegated to the certain specific theoretical points. Reading a book like this is actually really helpful, as it reminds me of all those specific examples the buttress those points that I do remember: What are all the reasons why dictionaries don’t actually work? What is the problem with trying to tally all the words in a language? I often find myself trying to explain these points to people and always stuttering over the specific examples.

So the refresher-course is nice, once I get over my horrible gut-reaction habit of saying “Yea, I already knew that” to every larger point Bryson tries to make. And it is here where I can take about this books greatest redeeming quality: the writing itself. Bryson is very engaging, and managed to keep these rather lofty academic topics easy enough where you never find yourself getting irritated at the reading. You want to continue reading this book, and part of the reason for that is the wit and humour that Bryson brings to the subject matter. He also knows how to transition from only tangentially related topic to another with a pretty good ease. The chapters at times feel rather broad in their scope, but I never felt lost as I was reading it.

When I reviewed Alpha God I commented that I felt that I was the choir being preached too while I was reading it. I didn’t get that here, and I was somewhat convinced that such a reaction was sure to come. I am ultimately not sure if was the style or the various serious of factoids (some long forgotten, some that I never knew) that ultimately saved this book. But even though I didn’t expect to like it, i ultimately did.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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