Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson review

English is essential to what we do. The story of how it became the language it is today and the truth behind some pedant’s favourites are given in Bill Bryon’s Mother Tongue.

You probably know Bill Bryson as the American, Anglophile writer whose travelogues are never far from the best seller lists. Fans of the contrived might say that Mother Tongue: the English language is a travelogue written by Bryson on behalf of the English language.

In itself, the history of English is fascinating: having grown from a few northern European dialects to the most widely spoken language in the world. It could, though, be easily drained of any interest by a dry, academic presentation. Bryson – of course – avoids that by allowing his knowledge and love of the language to spill out of the page. Mother Tongue doesn’t set out to educate but Bryson’s enthusiasm infectiously transmits knowledge through, often humorous, anecdotes and insightful observations.

Aside from clarifying the difference between a creole and a pidgin, or investigating the roots of the many accents used by English speakers across the world, Mother Tongue dispels some of the most persistent grammatical myths that dog the language. Spit infinitives are okay! Stick a preposition at the end of a sentence if you fancy! Bryson highlights the lunacy of applying Latin grammar to a Germanic language and the smug, slimy pedants it has given us. As Winston Churchill said, “This is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Mother Tongue is both useful and entertaining for anyone who earns their living through the use of English. It reminds us that we are the masters of the language and that the rules are there to help us communicate. I think that a former colleague summed it up best when faced with a stuttering friend, “Don’t be afraid: words are your friend”.