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The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.
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All human societies feature one crucial building block of social organization—language. The spoken and written word is what binds individuals together and helps us form stable communities. In modern history, the English language has come to occupy a dominant position. Today, English is spoken by around 1.5 billion people across the globe, making it the world’s most widely spoken language.

At first glance, it might seem unlikely that the native tongue of a people occupying just one part of an island off the coast of northwestern Europe would become the international language of business and diplomacy. To understand how this came to be, we need to understand the history of English and the processes by which it evolved into the language we speak and write today. What are the origins of English? What are the characteristics of the language that made it easier for people all over the globe to adopt and spread it? What quirks and features of English make it unique? And what is the future of the language?

The History of English

Roots of English

Most of the languages of Europe and Asia belong to one great Indo-European family of languages. English is a member of the Germanic family of languages (the West Germanic branch, to be precise), which is itself part of the larger Indo-European language family.

The story of English began when Germanic peoples known as the Angles and Saxons, hailing from what is now Northern Germany, began migrating to and conquering the Roman province of Britannia in the mid-5th century CE. These Angles and Saxons brought their Germanic language to their new home, where it morphed over time into the language we now call Old English. Some of our most fundamental words today come from Old English, particularly words related to family—man, wife, child, brother, and sister, to name a few. Old English was a rich literary language as well, leaving behind a trove of letters, charters, religious works, and legal texts. Old English works like Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn are the starting points of English literature.

From the 8th to the 10th centuries CE, the British Isles were invaded and settled by the Vikings of Scandinavia. The Viking immigrants and their Norse language further enriched the Old English vocabulary, adding important words like husband, sky, and leg. Old English also absorbed syntax and grammatical structure from Old Norse, a testament to the language’s fluidity, even at this early stage in its development.

In 1066, the Norman king William I conquered England and displaced the reigning Anglo-Saxon ruling elite. Norman French came to exert its own powerful influence on English vocabulary and structure—no fewer than 10,000 words can be traced to the time of the Norman Conquest.

Historical Evolution

Throughout the later Middle Ages, English evolved organically and developed many of its more recognizable features. One such feature was uninflected verbs with stable consonants (in other words, they are mostly the same regardless of gender, tense, case, and mood). Another was the simplification of noun endings to denote plurals (almost all English nouns are today pluralized with the addition of a simple s at the end).

In England, the speech patterns of the capital city of London came to establish the standard for how the language was spoken in the rest of the country, although this was a long and uneven historical process that didn’t happen all at once or with the same speed everywhere. Vestigial features of older forms of the language remain in place to this day, with archaic pronouns like thee and thou still spoken in parts of Yorkshire.

Perhaps the most famous change in pronunciation was the Great Vowel Shift running roughly from 1400-1600 CE, during which English speakers began pushing vowels closer to the front of their mouths. The word life, for example, was pronounced lafe in Shakespeare’s time, with the vowel lodged further back in the throat.

At this time, English began to be regarded for its potential as a language of literature. No writer took greater advantage of the incredible flexibility and richness of the English language than Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon alone added some 2,000 words to the language, such as mimic, bedroom, lackluster, hobnob. He also introduced a host of new phrases we still use today, like “one fell swoop” and “in my mind’s eye.” Shakespeare greatly elevated and exalted the English language.

For much of the history of the language, however, words defied standard spelling, with even Shakespeare offering a bewildering array of different and inconsistent spellings for the same words throughout his works. The first steps toward standardization only began with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and the gradual spread of written works (and thus, literacy) throughout England.

By 1640, there were over 20,000 titles available in English, more than there had ever been. As printed works produced by London printers began to spread across the country, local London spelling conventions gradually began to supplant local variations. What this also meant was that old spellings became fixed just as many word pronunciations were shifting because of the Great Vowel Shift. Our inheritance is a written language with many words spelled the way they were pronounced 400 years ago.

As a result, English spellings often bedevil non-native speakers, as well as those who’ve spoken the language their whole lives. Pronunciation and spelling are frequently divergent. To take just one example, the sh sound can be spelled sh as in mash; ti as in ration; or ss as in session. The troublesome orthography (the set of conventions for writing) of English can be seen in words like debt, know, knead, and colonel, with their silent letters, as well as their hidden, but pronounced letters.

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Chapter 1: The Origins of English

All human societies feature one crucial building block of social organization—language. The spoken and written word is what binds individuals together and helps us form stable communities. In modern history, the English language has come to occupy a dominant position.

(Shortform note: According to The Economist, around 1.5 billion people across the globe speak English with at least some degree of proficiency, making it the world’s most-spoken language.)

At first glance, it might seem unlikely that the native tongue of a people occupying just one part of an island off the coast of northwestern Europe would become the international language of business and diplomacy. To understand how this came to be, we need to understand the history of English and the processes by which it evolved into the language we speak and write today. What are the origins of English? What are the characteristics of the language that made it easier for people all over the globe to adopt and spread it? What quirks and features of English make it unique? And what is the future of the language?

But...

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Chapter 2: Later Development of English

We’ve seen how invasions from the Angles, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans helped to form the basic structure of the English language. In this chapter, we’ll look at more recent developments in the history of the language that made it into the language we know today. These later developments helped give English the richness, variety, and adaptability that helped transform it from a local language into a global one.

Shakespeare: Elevating the Language

No writer took greater advantage of the incredible flexibility and richness of the English language than Shakespeare. In the late-16th and early-17th centuries, the Bard of Avon alone added some 2,000 words to the language, like mimic, bedroom, lackluster, hobnob. He also introduced a whole host of new phrases that we still use today, like “one fell swoop” and “in my mind’s eye” owe their origins to Shakespeare. He reshaped English, showcasing its extraordinary possibilities as a language of literature. Although academic works by English authors continued to be written in French and Latin, Shakespeare made a remarkable contribution to the standardization and exaltation of the English language.

The Great Vowel...

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Shortform Exercise: Explore Linguistic Prejudice

Examine how language can be used to stigmatize or marginalize those who are different.


Provide an example of a rule of something you were taught was “improper” English. Based on what you’ve read about how rules of English were often created, do you think this rule is based on clear reasoning? Explain why or why not.

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Chapter 3: Flexibility of English

We’ve seen how the English language, in its development and evolution over time, proved to be remarkably flexible and adaptable to innovations and influences from other languages. These characteristics gave English a versatility that would later be a major asset as it spread to nearly all corners of the globe. In this chapter, we’ll explore how variable and fluid English can be—in ways that can sometimes lead to real confusion.

Complications of Versatility

For all the benefits of being a flexible and adaptable language, English can sometimes be too flexible. Even simple words like set or fine can baffle speakers of other languages with their multiple meanings and contexts. Linguistic phenomena like polysemy—different meanings for a single word—are common (and confounding) properties of English. The language is also notorious for contronyms, words that appear the same but have multiple meanings that are the exact opposite—for example, sanction can mean either to approve or to censure; clip can mean either to bind or to detach.

Moreover, this same versatility can make English rules of grammar seem maddeningly arbitrary to non-native speakers. The subtle...

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Chapter 4: English Beyond England

So far, we’ve explored the history of the English language mostly as it pertained to its original home—the British Isles. We’ve seen how these historical processes gave rise to a language that is notable for its malleability and adaptability, able to be written and spoken in a wide variety of ways.

In this chapter, we’re going to take our survey of the language beyond the British Isles. We’ll explore how American English came into existence, diverged from British English, and developed its own unique characteristics. Then, we’ll examine how English has evolved as a global language.

The Legacy of the British Empire

English became a world language in large part through the political and economic power of the British Empire.

(Shortform note: At its peak in the early 20th century, the British Empire occupied nearly one-quarter of the world’s total land area and counted nearly proportion of the world’s people as its subjects.)

The British Empire exported the English language all over the globe. Very soon after the establishment of British colonies in far-flung territories, English quickly began to follow new developmental trajectories in these places. Indeed,** new...

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Chapter 5: The Richness of English

We’ve looked at the emergence of English as a dominant language of global business and politics through the British Empire and the political and cultural influence of the United States. But English is also a language of literature and oratory, capable of eloquently expressing the most powerful human emotions and desires. It possesses a number of unique properties, quirks, and complexities that set it apart from other tongues. In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the language’s unique traits that make it so rich and evocative.

English Place-Names

One of the best ways to glimpse the richness and variety of English is to explore names, especially place-names and personal names. Place-names in England are often perplexing to outsiders because of the divergence between their spellings and pronunciations: Leicester is pronounced “lester,” Worcester is pronounced “wooster,” and Postwick is pronounced “pozick.” These names are often the product of waves of conquerors—Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans twisting and reshaping the names of the places they encountered. Thus, British place-names bear the stamp of peoples from all across Europe.

**Many names of...

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The Mother Tongue Summary The Mother Tongue Guide Conclusion: The Road Ahead for English

In the United States, there have been many attempts throughout the years to “protect” and “preserve” the English language from the perceived threat of foreign or outside influence. Interest groups have sought to establish English as the official language (at least for government use) in cities, states, and even at the federal level. These groups claim that linguistic divisions have historically led to strife in other countries (like Belgium and Canada).

There is some truth to this claim, because language is one of the main things that divides human societies from each other and is closely tied to national and ethnic identity. The struggles between Flemish- and Walloon-speakers in Belgium, the Québécois separatist movement pitting Anglophone and Francophone speakers in Canada, and the persecution of Esperanto speakers in fascist states in the early 20th century all attest to language as a hot-button issue.

These same groups,...

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Shortform Exercise: Understanding The Mother Tongue

Explore the main takeaways from The Mother Tongue.


Why do you think English has become adopted by so many people across the world?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Chapter 1: The Origins of English
  • Chapter 2: Later Development of English
  • Exercise: Explore Linguistic Prejudice
  • Chapter 3: Flexibility of English
  • Chapter 4: English Beyond England
  • Chapter 5: The Richness of English
  • Conclusion: The Road Ahead for English
  • Exercise: Understanding The Mother Tongue