The Mother Tongue

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson wasn’t the book I thought it was going to be. I found it on a listicle late last year, as I was skulking around the internet, looking for books about writing.

I wanted to front load a ton of good books on copywriting, marketing, and writing for my reading this year. I held my nose and rooted through a bargain bin stuffed full of clickbait headlines. I dug through loathsome pieces of internet trash with headlines like Top 23 Writing Books of All Time, or 14 Books on Writing You Won’t Believe (Number 6 Is Insane!)

I found The Mother Tongue on more than one list, of that I’m sure. I wanted a practical book. I wanted a book that covered the nuts and bolts of writing, editing, plotting, character development, and other elements of the Craft. But The Mother Tongue is about linguistics and the evolution of the English language.

Little known fact: I love etymology. I took an etymology class when I was a junior in high school. Mr. Jones graded on a curve, and I set the curve for every test. I’m good at words. The Mother Tongue wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse, but I stuck with it. Even if finishing it took longer than I budgeted.

But let’s talk about the book.

We tend to slur those things most familiar to us, particularly place-names.

Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’m from southern Indiana, and it was several years after I moved north for college before I stopped pronouncing “Louisville” as “Lou-uh-vulle,” or even “Luh-vulle.” Fascinating that we’re most careless with names most familiar to us. Many times I’ve stepped carefully over an unfamiliar word, while slurring the names of my closest friends, familiar locations, favorite video games, movies, books, and TV shows.

Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning.

For a long time, I took bad spelling or poor grammar to be a sign of a lack of intelligence. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I figured out this isn’t true. Some people aren’t good at language. I’m not good at math, or physics. It doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I am in fact, quite smart, and the same holds true for many people who have a hard time with they’re, their, and there.

I’m not much of a grammarian. My own grammar is shaky at best, most of the time. Sometimes for effect, sometimes through carelessness or my own spotty education. Bad grammar doesn’t bother me. I’m willing to let it slide.

But there’s no excuse for poor spelling. I don’t embarrass easily, but catching spelling mistakes in anything I’ve written and shown to another person always causes me to curse myself for an idiot, a FRAUD.

Chapter 14 was all about swearing. Most cultures swear. It’s a natural part of human expression. Reading about the age of words like “shit” and “fuck”, and the sheer volume of slang terms for “penis” was fascinating. Useful? Hard to say. But fascinating? Unquestionably!

Will having read The Mother Tongue make me a better writer? I don’t think so. I didn’t find any urge to jump up, stop reading, and start writing while working through the book. Still, it made me laugh, and while it was perhaps not the best use of my time, I’m not exactly cursing myself for a fraud for having read it.

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.

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