‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson

Book 15 of 45 Days of Book Stories


Title: ‘Mother Tongue’
Author: Bill Bryson (1951- Present day)
Date of Publishing: 1st June 1990
Publisher: William Morrow & Company Inc.
Bryson’s title is curious, as he uses it to refer to only one language – English, and not a host of mother-tongues across the globe. He takes us on a cultural and linguistic journey of the English language, from its Indo-European origins to its colonial power. And then how it’s user-friendly syntax structure has given it a global grip on the tongues and minds of billions. Even you, even me!

Why This Book?

It is through the story that Bill Bryson reveals to us – one filled with historical facts, etymological twists and turns, and bringing us to a point of wonder for a language we think we know. A language that we consider as close to, or closer than our Mother Tongue! In India as in other post-colonial nations, the import of English as a global communicative advantage, as well as a weed that has overrun the natural habitat, cannot be ignored.

The insidious nature of English as a language comes from the fact that it never was a “pure” language. borrowing heavily on German, French, Latin and other global languages. Google this composition and Wikipedia will reference and give you a pie chart of all the languages, in what proportions that English language is constructed of. From Old Norse to Hindi and Spanish.


Yes, I know the title above, isn’t the “proper” use of English Grammar, but when we speak in English – does it really matter? Traditionally English Grammar relies heavily on the structures provided by the European languages such as French and German. But, it has always been a unifier, and simplifier, our beloved English! Take for example it’s complete eradication of the L’accent circonflexe (circumflex) or “chapeau” from French words such as Lhôpital – that becomes Hospital, or l’hôtel simply becomes Hotel and Hostel is modified and borrowed from the Latin Hospitale (meaning a place of welcome and rest, like an inn).

One of the biggest take-aways from the book is the innate sense of humour the English language possesses – it takes bits and parts, fragments and concepts that are best in another language and rebrands it as it’s own. A few of our desi examples that I could think of are,

डाकू (Daku) becomes Dacoit,

 बंगला ( BanglA) becomes Bungalow

जगन्नाथ (Jagganath) becomes Juggernaut.

It is worthy to highlight that English does not care for your sensibilities or sensitivities, your attachment to a particular meaning that the word originally had, it shall be made malleable. English will take it, and make it mean what it wants it to mean. Perhaps not always, but often enough. Take the example I shared above, Jagganath is a form of the Ultimate Divine, a form of Vishnu – the Supreme Lord. In English the essence of the word is kept, for it is most useful for the speakers of this language, it comes to mean ” a large and powerful force”(Oxford English Dictionary). Of course, Bryson uses his own examples and perhaps some of you might find him heavy with the historical facts and figures. But note, Mother Tongue is NOT a history book, but a colourful journey of the language itself and it’s key “influencers”. In addition, do not mistakenly assume that you shall be only encountering the quirks of the English language – Oh no! Amidst the pages of this book, you shall coem face-to-face with Cajun, Anglo-Saxon, and the xenophobia that is insitutional when it comes to the English (here read as the people and the language) versus the American and their “isms”.


Throughout Mother Tongue Bryson paints us a vivid and lively picture of this language that we all seem to take ownership of. He gives us great insight into the reasons for the longevity of the language ( as you’ll see through the Anglo-Saxon example quotes below). And most importantly for me – Bryson makes it clear, through one example after another, that this language you and I take ownership of, it’s a nobody’s and everybody’s tongue. The expanse of history, changes, subtraction, additions, and modifications this beloved language has gone through is astounding! It seems that each year of its use creates its own upgrade. Each speaker and community that has adopted the English language have made it their own, from Hinglish here in Delhi to Nigerian-Pidgin-English.

We have preferred vocabulary country to country, and preferred structures and phrases that are unique to us! They could be changing what the words mean in a context, or it could be a direct translation form your native tongue to the ‘mother-tongue’. Your mind will connect dots and make maps that Bryson perhaps even isn’t aware he has inspired. But that is the magic of this book, it makes you think, question and you dive deeper into your thoughts, that turn into words and sentences. Are you making sense, or is the sense, making you?!

In the end, before I go read this book again, for there is much to be appreciated, I leave you with three quotes from the book. The first is an argument Bryson is making, that any language that borrows from another invariably improves upon the source or prototype. In this case he’s talking about Cajun versus French,

Often it is more colourful and expressive than the parent tongue. The Cajun for humming bird, sucfleur (‘flower-sucker’), is clearly an improvement on the French oiseaumouche.

Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue, Pg 105

The second quote I’d like to present here is one where Bryson tells us the tale of the challenges for early adopters of the language, namely the Anglo-Saxons,

English spelling has caused problems for about as long as there have been English words to spell. When the Anglo-Saxons became literate in the sixth-century, they took their alphabet from the Romans, but quickly realised that they had three sounds for which the Romans had no letters. These they supplied by taking three symbols from their old runic alphabet: w, ᚦ, and ð.”

Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue, Pg 114

The third and final quote I’d like to share, and affirm you find your own copy of this gem of a book and read it cover-to-cover, is the myth-busting that Bryson does of the age-old Us versus Them when it comes to the English and their fight against so-called Americanisms,

The position has little improved with time. As Baugh and cable put it, ‘The English attitude towards Americanisms is still quite frankly hostile.’ To this day you can find authorities in Britain attacking such ‘Americanisms’ as maximize, minimize, and input, quite unaware that the first two were coined by Jeremy Betham more than a century ago and the last appeared more than 600 years ago in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible. Loan as a verb (rather than lend) is often criticised as an Americanism, when in fact it was first used in England a full eight centuries ago. The stylebook of ‘The Times’ sniffily instructs its staff members that ‘normalcy should be left to the Americans who coined it. The English is normality.’ In point of fact normalcy is a British coinage.

Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue, Pg 167

My Fandom & Graduation

In the end, I’d like to share on grounds of full disclosure that I am a complete and utter fan of all things Bill Bryson. I had read Mother Tongue before I entered University, and in my first-year dorm-room, I had ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ on my bedside. I then have gone on to fall in love with Bryson’s canon of works. His ease of straddling many hats, his detailed research and writing style all engage me as a reader and leave me wanting more facts, anecdotes and tales from Bryson’s pen. Just as I was settling into Uni life, it was announced that our 11th Chancellor, for the University of Durham, would be Bill Bryson! I was ecstatic, Bill Bryson would hand me my Degree at Graduation! It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and though extraneous circumstances kept me from physically attending the ceremony when the time came, I do have my Degree proudly hanging on my office wall – with Bill Bryson’s signature!

P.S. I’m currently re-reading The Body (2019) – I’ll leave you with a favourite quote about speech from Bryson’s book,

Speech and its evolution ‘are perhaps more extensively debated than any other topic in human evolution,’ in the words of Daniel Lieberman. No one knows even approximately when speech began on Earth and whether it is an accomplishment confined to Homo sapiens or whether it was a skill mastered by archaic humans like Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Lieberman thinks it likely that Neanderthals commanded complex speech based on their large brains and array of tools, but it isn’t a provable hypothesis.”

Excerpt From: Bill Bryson. “The Body.”