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The Mother Tongue summary

English And How It Got That Way

4.5 (119 ratings)
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Brief summary

"The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson explores the origins and evolution of the English language. From the impact of historical events and invaders to the influence of American slang, Bryson’s work sheds light on how English became a global language.

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    The Mother Tongue
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    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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    What is The Mother Tongue about?

    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.

    The Mother Tongue Review

    The Mother Tongue (1990) is a captivating exploration of the English language and its origins. Here's why this book is definitely worth reading:

    • It offers a fascinating journey through the history and evolution of the English language, revealing surprising and interesting facts along the way.
    • With its engaging storytelling and witty anecdotes, it brings linguistic concepts to life, making it an enjoyable and accessible read for language enthusiasts and casual readers alike.
    • By delving into the quirks and idiosyncrasies of English, the book celebrates the beauty and richness of the language, making readers appreciate it even more.

    Best quote from The Mother Tongue

    In Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, not the mail, while in America the Postal Service delivers the mail, not the post.

    —Bill Bryson
    example alt text

    Who should read The Mother Tongue?

    • Historians
    • Linguists
    • Word lovers

    About the Author

    Bill Bryson, a prolific and witty author, has written over 20 books on travel and language, including the bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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    The Mother Tongue FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Mother Tongue?

    Discover the fascinating history and quirks of the English language in The Mother Tongue.

    How long does it take to read The Mother Tongue?

    The reading time for The Mother Tongue varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in 15 minutes.

    Is The Mother Tongue a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Mother Tongue is worth reading for language enthusiasts. It offers intriguing insights and anecdotes about the English language.

    Who is the author of The Mother Tongue?

    The author of The Mother Tongue is Bill Bryson.

    What to read after The Mother Tongue?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Mother Tongue, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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