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The Mother Tongue

English And How It Got That Way

By Bill Bryson
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The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue (1990) provides a unique and personal look at the history of the English language. You’ll learn how, thanks to its flexibility and adaptability, English has endured and flourished, despite centuries of invasions, uprisings and censorship.

Key idea 1 of 7

Many of the world’s languages can be traced back to a common ancestral language.

Many people will tell you that today’s world is more connected than ever before. This may well be the case, but that doesn’t mean that connectedness is anything new. One age-old indicator of a near-global connection is language. Take the word “brother.” In German it’s “bruder,” in Sanskrit it’s “bhrata,” and in Persian it’s “biradar.”

Why are these words so similar? An eighteenth-century English judge wondered the same thing – and his attempt to answer that question essentially launched the field of historical linguistics.

Sir William Jones was working in India when he took up the unusual hobby of learning Sanskrit.

The language had already been dead for hundreds of years, yet it managed to survive thanks to the priests who’d memorized certain hymns, called the Vedas. Though the priests were ignorant of the words’ meanings, they managed to pass them down from one generation to the next.

As Jones studied these texts, he began to recognize unmistakable similarities between Sanskrit and the European languages. In Latin, for example, “king” is “rex,” and in Sanskrit it’s “raja.” And Sanskrit for the English word “birch” is “bhurja.”

Once he’d noticed these similarities, Jones began comparing other languages to Sanskrit, and he found more and more evidence for a budding theory: that a wide variety of classical languages – Persian, Latin, Celtic, Sanskrit, Greek – had their roots in a parent language.

Eventually, Jones presented his theory in Calcutta. This presentation gave birth to a whole new field of scholarship. European scholars began conducting research of their own and, in the end, they agreed with Jones. They named the parent language Indo-European.

Deducing the existence of Indo-European is an impressive feat of historical linguistics. The speakers of this language would have only been alive during the Stone Age (around 7000 BC) and there are no traces of Indo-European writing. Nonetheless, scholars have offered convincing hypotheses about these people’s lives, solely based on common words in the descendent languages.

Since the words for “snow” and “cold” are similar, we can deduce that the Indo-Europeans didn’t live in tropical climates.

Likewise, since there is no common word for “sea,” they likely began as inland tribes. And when they migrated to the coast, they invented their own separate words for the ocean.

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