Bragging about English (Highlights from Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue”)


In his funny and enlightening book about English (The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way), the love and pride of Bill Bryson – the best-selling Anglo-American writer of books on language, travel and science – for his native tongue transpire on every page.

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Packed with historical facts, hilarious anecdotes and scholarly information about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of English, the book is a pleasure for those who teach, write, edit, work with or simply use and are interested in the most international language of contemporary times. The good news is, as the book is constantly drawing fascinating comparisons between English and other tongues and dialects, you may appreciate it even if English is not your favorite language. Readers will also be captivated as they follow the changes English has gone through since its origins and the many influences it has been subject to in its evolution. Here are some highlights of the book to which I took the liberty to add a few personal comments.

1. English has become the biggest and most influential international language of contemporary times, with some 400M native speakers; 400M speakers of English as a second language and 700M speakers of English as a foreign language – and growing (this data has been updated according to the latest info available on Wikipedia). It’s the international language of business, education, movies, pop music, science and politics.

2. The author claims it’s the only language that, due to its richness of vocabulary, needs books on synonyms, such as Roget’s Thesaurus. One of the reasons for this variety is English has been borrowing words from more than 50 different languages throughout its formation. It’s believed that English has a synonym for each level of the culture: popular, literary and scholarly. So, for example, one can rise, mount or ascend a stairway. One could also shrink in fear, horror or trepidation. Another curious example given in the book: one can think, ponder or cogitate upon a problem.

3. The author also says that another factor that sets English apart from most languages is its flexibility concerning word order, the use of the passive and the active voice and the subtle differences one can express through verbal forms. Notions that in many other languages, for example, would be represented by only one form of the simple present in English can become: I sing, I do sing, I’m singing, I’ve been singing.

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4. Although Bryson admits there’s no way to measure or prove the superiority of a language over others, he is proud of the fact that, in English, the pronouns are largely uninflected regarding the social status of the person we are talking to, which makes it practical, simple and, to some extent, democratic. One can safely stick to you,regardless of whether you are speaking to a friend, your grandmother, a person of any social class, or even your boss.

5. Also, he praises the fact that English is relatively free of gender considerations for things and objects. A chair does not need to be masculine or feminine, you just sit in it.

6. English is a branch of the common tree of the Indo-European languages. It grew out of the Germanic family of languages. 1,500 hundred years ago Germanic tribes (the Angles and Saxons) crossed the North Sea and invaded the land where the Celts were already established (and also having lived together side by side with the Romans for nearly 400 years). It must have been hard on the Celts – a rather more sophisticated people – to be overrun by these hordes of unlettered, uncultured and pagan invaders.

7. The funny thing is that the language of the Angles was the one which most firmly established itself on the new land, despite the superiority in numbers of the Saxon invaders. Besides, while still on the continent, Anglo-Saxons had borrowed heavily from the Roman vocabulary (Latin). Another great historic influence that helped shape the English language, as we know it today, was the invasion of the islands by the Normans (Vikings who spoke a rural variety of French) in 1066. The kings of England spent the next 300 years without speaking English. Hence the strong influence of French words in contemporary English vocabulary.

8. Languages mold cultures and the other way around too. English speakers seem to dread silence in conversations. If it drags for more than 4 seconds, one of the people involved will make a comment about the weather, or come up with an empty comment such as, oh, my god – and, then,  pointing at his watch, will say something along the lines of time to leave, or time flies.

9. Shakespeare used some 17,000 words in his writings. 10% of them had never been used before. He coined them. Among the words Shakespeare contributed to the English language are: critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, excellent, countless, submerged, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, etc.

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10. In 1978, Robert Burchfield, who was the chief editor of The Oxford English Dictionaries at the time, predicted that in 200 years British and American English would be two completely different languages, mutually unintelligible. This prediction, however, has been repeated a number of times in history and its based on what happened, for example, to the Indo-European languages, especially Latin, which gave origin to distinct languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Nevertheless, the contemporary trend, with communications and traveling intensifying globally, in addition to the heavy use of the Internet, is the exact opposite. More and more words and grammar structures get exported internationally, mainly by the USA. So it’s unlikely that a total split will ever happen, quite the contrary.

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These 10 points we highlighted are only a very small percentage of the wealth of interesting information, considerations and insights into English you will find in Bill Bryson’s delicious book. Don’t waste any time: order it right now!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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5 Books Kids Used to Love Reading


I was lucky to grow up in a house packed with books. Both my mother and father loved reading. However, a dear aunt who lived with us for the most part of our lives was the real family bookworm. She wouldn’t stop buying books. This is the kind of environment that fosters the taste for reading in a kid. We wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Why do these grown-ups keep their eyes glued to those pages when the rest of us are having such a great time in front of the television watching Lost in Space? I had to find out.

My Mom decided to buy a collection of juvenile books which had just come out. Each volume came out quarterly and was sold from newsstands. It was basically through this collection that I made the acquaintance of some of the  great storytellers of all time: Dickens, R. L. Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and Jack London to name just a few. J. K Rowling was not among them, but I must confess I find Harry Potter’s The Prisoner of Azkaban a very sophisticated and clever book. The dementors, strange creatures that look after the magic prison featured in the story, are prone to inspire all kinds of psychological metaphors which can be disturbing even to adult readers.

In this post I’m going to list some of the books I loved when I read them as a child or a teenager and try to explain the power they exerted on my imagination, making me become an avid reader for life.

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

1. Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson: this was probably the first “real” book I’ve ever read (as opposed to the toy-books and comics I read before). It had a hard cover and it was thick by a 11-year-old’s standards. My brother and I read it around the same time and we couldn’t stop talking about Jim, the kid hero, who finds a map to a hidden treasure, after a mysterious captain dies at his parents’ inn by the sea. This is basically a coming-of-age tale, as Jim embarks on a perilous journey to find the treasure. Of course it has all the clichés  we associate with pirate tales today.  But I believe it must have been among the very first books to create and develop those same clichés in the first place.  Whenever my brother and I would go to desert beaches for a day or the weekend – they’re a lot more common on the northeastern coast of Brazil, where we lived,  than in the rest of the country – we relived in our imagination, as we ran up and down dunes and rocks,  Jim’s adventures and challenges. We were Jim ourselves.

2. The Adventures of  Tom Swayer by Mark Twain: who can forget Tom and Huck, best buddies, having fun, playing games and pranks in a small town by the Mississipi river in the early 1840s? Tom lived with a little bother, Sid, and a cousin, Mary, under the strict surveillance of Aunt Polly, who was always harassing the poor boy on matters of religion, cleanliness and good manners. Huck, on the other hand, was a boy of the streets, son of a drunk hobo, free to do whatever he pleased. Tom was the leader of the gang of the boys in the area, playing pirates and robbers, traveling to islands and exploring caves. The book is also about a boy’s first love and, although for most of us this was not so interesting, Twain made us care a lot about Becky, Tom’s sweetheart, by having them get lost in a maze-like cave, persecuted by a wanted criminal in the thrilling climax of the book. Unforgettable. This book is continued on a much more sophisticated work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered Twain’s masterpiece. But I only got to read that a lot later in life.

3. The Call of the Wild by Jack London: the progressive inner journey of Buck – a domesticated dog kidnapped by an unscrupulous farmer employee, and sold to work as a sled dog in Alaska- into his wild self is beautiful and liberating. The story is boldly told from the point of view of the animal itself, so we get a whole new perspective. The story is so powerful that makes one wonder whether we ourselves should not follow a similar path in the search of our truest soul, shedding all the masks and disguises imposed by a false concept of civilization.

4. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: of course the possibility of losing my mother was the worst nightmare I had growing up. My father died in an accident when I was very young, so I grew up in constant fear that my Mom might leave me too. Reading Oliver Twist was a great cathartic way to put myself in the character’s shoes and deal with the horrible situations I feared the most, with the relief that, whenever I put the book down, all the horrors I had been through remained pure fantasy and my Mom would still be safely living with me. It was reassuring to realize I’d never had to beg for food as the poor hero after being served a meager meal in one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the book: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

5. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne: if you read it today, it will feel a bit dated and definitely unbelievable. But at the time I first read it, I was fascinated by the trip to Iceland to reach the right volcano crater which would lead the characters down to the center of the planet. Some of the images branded forever in my brain by the powerful storytelling are, for example, the huge lake in the depths of the earth where we watch a fascinating fight between aquatic Cambrian monsters; the enormous caves jammed with stalagmites and  stalactites (I bet you don’t know the difference between them!)  the characters had to walk across on their way down, or the narrow halls and passageways along which they crawled down on their mission to get to the center of our planet.  However, it was hard to keep the suspence of disbelief during the passage at the end of the book, when the characters are implausibly ejected to the surface of the planet by riding a flimsy raft on rising boiling magma, traveling up a volcano channel. No way!

The books mentioned above are commonly associated with boys’ taste for challenge, danger, violence and adventure. I suspect, however, that girls might derive the same pleasure from them. What do you think? Please leave your comment and rate this post as you leave the page. Don’t forget to tell us about your favorite books too.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

The Old Man and the Sea


What’s all the fuss about this little tale of on old Cuban fisherman on the hunt for a huge marlin in the blue seas of the Gulf Stream, and his fight against the sharks that try to steal his spoils of war on the way back home? I needed to find out.

In his deceptively simple writing, Ernest Hemingway expresses all his concepts about life, old age, the meaning of victory, friendship, cooperation and masculinity in the fewer than 130 pages of this unforgettable story.

It’s a book with layers of meanings, and the right one for you will emerge and resonate deeply and fast – depending on your age and the point of life you’re at.

The Old Man and the Sea. Illustration by C.F. Tunnicliffe and Raymond Shepard.

The Old Man and the Sea. Illustration by C.F. Tunnicliffe and Raymond Shepard.

 

The powerful narrative of Hemingway will make you put yourself in this old man’ shoes (or lack thereof). You will feel the fishing line cutting through your hands and your back while you try to keep the marlin hooked, as the huge fish swims forward fighting for freedom, pulling your skiff along for endless hours out to the deep sea. The old man’s thoughts will be your thoughts – although I suspect his love for baseball will surely be replaced by your passion for soccer if you don’t live in the USA; his endurance and respect for life will sink profoundly into your heart. His recurring dreams of lions walking on a distant African beach will duplicate all your yearning for naturalness, beauty, purity and strength.

The Old Man and the Sea made me realize three great movies I’ve watched recently have strong references to it, without my noticing them at the time: Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and All is Lost, the latter featuring Robert Redford from the height of the dignity of his 77 years of age. The same themes of endurance, self-reliance and the power of dreaming reverberate through all of them, resolved in different and exciting original artistic forms. And, of course, they all go back to Melville’s Moby Dick.

I don’t expect anything else from a work of art: give me something beautiful and simple – throw some ocean into it, if possible – test my hero to the limits of his physical and mental strength, put me in his head as he struggles, and the artist will have managed to take me to places I have never been before, and, as a consequence, made my life richer and a lot more meaningful.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.