The Mother Tongue | Bill Bryson

Summary of: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
By: Bill Bryson


Dive into the fascinating world of the English language with Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way’. This summary is designed to help you explore the captivating journey of English, from its roots in the ancient Indo-European language to modern times. Uncover the significant impact of historical events like the migration of Germanic tribes, the Viking invasion, and the Norman conquest on the development of English. Discover how words have evolved, transformed, and coined anew over time while delving into the influences of different native languages on English.

The Roots of Language

Discover how an eighteenth-century English judge launched the field of historical linguistics by deducing the existence of a parent language and how scholars have offered convincing hypotheses about the lives of Indo-European speakers based on common words in descendant languages.

The world has never been more connected, but this interconnectedness is not new. It is evident through language, as demonstrated by the word “brother” in German, Sanskrit, and Persian. The attempt to answer why these words are similar launched the field of historical linguistics. Sir William Jones, an eighteenth-century English judge working in India, noticed similarities between Sanskrit and European languages while learning Sanskrit, a dead language that had survived through certain hymns. As Jones studied these texts, he began to compare other languages to Sanskrit, and he found more evidence for a budding theory: a wide variety of classical languages had their roots in a parent language, later named Indo-European. Historical linguistics is an impressive feat, especially in deducing the existence of Indo-European, a language spoken during the Stone Age, around 7000 BC. To offer hypotheses about the Indo-Europeans’ lives, scholars have relied on common words in descendant languages. For example, the words for “snow” and “cold” being similar suggests that the Indo-Europeans didn’t live in tropical climates. It is fascinating to note that the absence of a common word for “sea” implies that they likely started as inland tribes, and when they migrated to the coast, they invented separate words for the ocean. Jones’s work in Sanskrit unlocked a new field of scholarship and contributed to our understanding of language and interconnectedness.

Evolution of English

The English language has gone through major evolutionary stages, starting from the migration of Germanic tribes to Britain in 450 AD. The Viking invasion of 850 AD led to the absorption of Scandinavian words and terms, followed by the Norman conquest of 1066, which added over 10,000 words to the English language. The ruling class spoke French while the working class spoke English, and this resulted in a two-tiered society. The English language has come a long way, absorbing words and terms from different languages, and merging with Old Norse to become the language we speak today.

The Evolution of Words

The English language constantly transforms, resulting in changes to the meaning and usage of words throughout history. From adding prefixes, suffixes, and simplifying to introducing new words, individuals have played a vital role in expanding the English language. One period that stood out is between 1500 and 1650, where over 10,000 new words were added to the English lexicon. William Shakespeare contributed over a thousand of these words to the language, and words he introduced such as “excellent,” “lonely,” and “majestic” are still being used today. The evolution of words has also resulted in words taking on new meanings or gaining multiple meanings over time. For example, “set” now has 58 definitions as a noun and 126 definitions as a verb. Nonetheless, some words gained a new meaning while retaining their old meaning. Additionally, some words’ origins have changed over time, like the word “manufacture,” which now refers to machine-made products instead of being made by hand as it originally meant.

The Origins of English

When settlers arrived in the Americas, they encountered a vast array of unique flora and fauna, all of which required naming. The English language adopted many words from Native American languages, such as “hickory,” “squash,” “raccoon,” and “hammock.” The language also borrowed words from Spanish, Dutch, and French settlers. The English language has evolved to include compound words, like “rattlesnake” and “catfish,” and creatively descriptive nicknames, like “one-armed bandit.” Interestingly, the word “America” comes from a misunderstanding: Amerigo Vespucci never actually saw North America, but a German mapmaker believed he had discovered the whole continent. The name “Americus Vespucius” caught on, and “Mundus Novus” was never popularized. The story of the evolution of the English language is an intriguing reflection of the various cultural influences that have contributed to its unique vocabulary.

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