Monday, January 14, 2013

"Mother Tongue": a great book about the world's greatest language

WARNING! "Dirty words"!
This book review contains two four-letter Anglo-Saxon monosyllables relating to a part of the female anatomy. If you're the kind of person who never looked up "dirty words" in the dictionary as a kid, read no further.

Someone who speaks several languages is multilingual.
Someone who speaks two languages is bilingual.
Someone who speaks only one language is English.

Indeed. English... or American. Most other countries seem to have accepted the altogether sensible concept that having a second (and third or fourth) language enriches a person, figuratively if not literally.

Not native English speakers. Those who are fortunate enough to have the language of Shakespeare as their mother tongue seem to subscribe to the belief of an American evangelical preacher who told his flock that "if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

Many English speakers seem to think that if anyone's going to learn a new language, let it be the NON-English speakers. And the rest of the world seems to agree. In China alone, there are more people learning -- or attempting to learn -- English than there are English speakers in America. 99% of them will wind up speaking Chinglish, but at least they're trying.

I am fortunate to be a native speaker of English. I learned it at my mother's knee and other low joints. My mother was a teacher of the Queen's English, the queen being Victoria. From her -- my mother, not the queen -- I inherited a high regard for proper English usage. And from reading the work of good writers I developed admiration for clever and creative writing.

By "good writers" I mean the likes of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O'Rourke, and the inimitable Bill Bryson. One thinks of Mr. Bryson as a travel writer; indeed, most of his better books have been about travel. (African Diary sucked, but that was a charitable project and I think Bryson didn't put a lot of time or effort into it.)

But Bryson has more strings to his bow than travel writing. He is quite the cunning linguist, with a keen interest in the English language. And he has written a fine book about it, called Mother Tongue (William Morrow 1990; Penguin 1991).

Mother Tongue is not a dull book of rules for English grammar and spelling. Although it does contain chapters on both topics, it is both fascinating and laugh-out-loud funny. It is filled with trivia about not just things (words) but people.

For instance, Bryson paints an unflattering portrait of Noah Webster, who appears to have been quite an unpleasant man.

He worked tirelessly turning out endless hectoring books and tracts, as well as working on the more or less constant revision of his spelling and dictionaries. In between time he wrote impassioned letters to congressmen, dabbled in politics, proffered unwanted advice to presidents, led his church choir, lectured to large audiences, helped found Amherst College, and produced a sanitized version of the Bible in which Onan doesn't spill his seed but simple 'frustrates his purpose', in which men don't have testicles but rather 'peculiar members', and in which women don't have wombs (or evidently anything else with which to contribute to the reproductive process).

Of course Bryson does talk about the marvellous English vocabulary, about the words... All of the words, including two words for the female pudenda. Readers of Chaucer, he tells us, will frequently encounter "cunt", one of the seven words George Carlin said you can't say on TV.

Brits will know, but Americans may not, that there is a slightly milder Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic synonym, "twat", which was used by such illustrious writers as the poet Robert Browning, in Pippa Passes.
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.

Although it had the same meaning in 1841 as it does now, Browning somehow thought "twat" meant a piece of headgear for nuns. Bryson writes:
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 the mistake to him.

Walt agrees entirely with Ruth Rendell, whose review in the Sunday Times calls Mother Tongue "anecdotal, full of revelations, and with not one dull paragraph". Lovers of the English language will love this book.

Footnote: George Carlin said there are no dirty words, only dirty thoughts.

1 comment: