Want to get the main points of The Mother Tongue in 20 minutes or less? Read the world’s #1 book summary of The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson here.
Read a quick 1-Page Summary, a Full Summary, or watch video summaries curated by our expert team.
Table of Contents
- 1-Page Summary of The Mother Tongue
- Full Summary of The Mother Tongue
- Big Idea #1: Many of the world’s languages can be traced back to a common ancestral language.
- Big Idea #2: Repeated conquests of the British Isles changed and expanded the English language.
- Big Idea #3: As English evolved, new words were added and old ones took on new meanings.
- Big Idea #4: Words were created in the New World through adaptation and “America” came about through a misunderstanding.
- Big Idea #5: Our last names can reveal information about our family’s past.
- Big Idea #6: Words can be perfectly acceptable in one century and profane swear words in the next.
1-Page Summary of The Mother Tongue
Bill Bryson has encountered many examples of English as a second language. For example, he once saw a sign that told drivers to honk the horn “first melodiously” and then with vigor if pedestrians didn’t pay attention. He also stayed in a Yugoslavian hotel where the maids would “flatten” guests’ underwear with pleasure rather than simply saying they offered laundry service.
Bryson asked himself why people bother to learn English if it’s so hard to master. He explored the history of English and how it evolved into what we know today. In addition, he looked at how colonialism influenced its current status as a world language. To top it off, he discussed why learning English is so difficult and whether or not that matters in the big picture of things.
How Language Came About
When were the first words spoken? Nobody really knows, but it’s believed that humans didn’t say anything for 100,000 years. Humans just produced offspring and survived until about 30,000 years ago when they started to paint cave walls and develop better tools. Evidence suggests that this was a period of cooperation among people too. It’s hard to imagine all this happening without some sort of communication system in place. Also, skeletal remains from 20,000 years ago suggest that larynxes were positioned deeper in throats than before which made well articulated speech possible at last.
There are many theories regarding the origin of language. Most suggest that people made spontaneous noises based on feelings like alarm, joy, and pain, which evolved into words. Other theories say that people invented words to mimic natural sounds. These ideas explain why there are so many onomatopoeia words in our vocabulary today.
Historians believe that as people migrated, they developed different words for the unique flora and fauna of their new homes. Eventually, those languages branched off into a dozen different groups: Celtic, Germanic, Greek and so on. These branches then subdivided further to become scores of modern languages spoken today.
Why Modern English is Nothing Like Old English
If you travel to a small region in northern Germany, you might hear people speaking their local dialect. It’s similar to how people spoke over 1,000 years ago in Britain.
English originated from Germanic tribes, a group of people who spoke related languages. The Saxons were one such tribe that lived in Britain for centuries and merged with other tribes over time to become the Anglo-Saxon people.
The early Anglo-Saxons were illiterate and didn’t bathe. Meanwhile, the Celts had a written alphabet dating back centuries before the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons and clean water systems. The Celts must have felt indignant about being ruled by an uncivilized hoard with no education or hygiene practices.
The English language almost died in the eleventh century. The upper-class Anglo-Saxons abandoned their own dialect for about 300 years and spoke French instead. Bishops, scholars, cooks, and scribes were all replaced by people who could speak French. Ordinary people continued to speak English during this time period; however, it was seen as a crude peasants’ tongue because nobility did not use it regularly again until 1399 when Henry IV became king of England after the Norman invasion.
Norman French had an impact on the English language. Many words, such as “justice,” “marriage,” “parliament,” and so forth were derived from Norman French, which suggests that the Normans influenced the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of their rule in England, some scholars estimate that 85% of pre-existing Anglo-Saxon words died out. However, many essential terms survived including “love,” “drink,” and so forth because they are fundamental to everyday life.
English was once the language of nobility in Britain. After it was reinstated, it became refined and normalized throughout the region. Over time, verb tenses were standardized and confusing word endings were removed from its vocabulary. This led to the emergence of modern-day English as we know it today.
Colonialism’s Lasting Impact on English’s Global Status
Many countries that were colonized by the British Empire adopted English as their official language. They did so after gaining independence because it was the only language they had in common. For example, India’s constitution was written in English because it is seen as a way to unite its citizens who speak 1,652 different languages and dialects. Similarly, Malaysia has been trying to phase out English since the 1970s but continues to use it for professional and educational purposes. Nigeria also has a history of attempting to eliminate English but still uses it for business purposes
People have tried to create a new language that is more logical and neutral than English. One of the most popular attempts was Volapuk, which was invented in 1880 by a German priest named Johann Martin Schleyer. Volapuk did not feature the letter “r” because he thought it was too hard for children, elderly people, or native Chinese speakers to pronounce. It had an English-like structure but its vocabulary was obscure and difficult to understand. People enthusiastically promoted this language for 15 years until it fell out of favor due to its difficulty.
There are several languages that have been created with the goal of being easier to learn and use. One such language is Esperanto, which was invented by Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhoff in 1887. It has 16 rules, no definite articles, regular endings, and logical spelling. With just three hours per week for a year-long course of study, anyone can become fluent in the language. There are about eight million speakers worldwide who speak it in 10 countries. However, not enough people have adopted this language to make it useful as a global means of communication—it is unlikely that English will be replaced any time soon.
Why English Remains the Dominant World Language Today
Although the British Empire is long gone, English remains to be a dominant language in business and politics. In 157 of 168 countries with airlines, English is the agreed upon language for international discourse, and in India there are over 3,000 newspapers published in English. When companies from France, Italy Germany and Switzerland formed a joint truck making venture called Iveco they chose English as their working language because it put them all at an equal communication disadvantage. And when Volkswagen set up a factory in Shanghai they found that too few Germans spoke Chinese and too few Chinese spoke German so everyone agreed to speak English.
There are many explanations for why English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. First, some people believe that it’s because of its rich vocabulary and precise words, which make it easier to communicate with one another. In addition, there are countless technical and scientific terms coined in English that aren’t translated into other languages. As a result, even when speaking their native languages, people use certain words without translating them from English.
However, there are certain ideas that are easier to explain in other languages than they are in English. For instance, there’s a difference between knowledge gained from recognition and knowledge gained from deep understanding. As a result, we borrow some of our words from other languages.
Second, some people argue that English is widely used because it’s easy to use. In other languages, you can’t say “I kicked the dog” and mean the same thing as if you said “the dog was kicked by me.” Also, in many languages there would be only one way to say something like “I swim,” but in English we have options such as: I do swim; I am swimming; or I swim.
Some people believe that English is the most popular language because it’s easier to learn than other languages. For example, in Cantonese you need to change your tone when saying a word or else you could be using an offensive word. Welsh also has some words with hard-to-pronounce letters and combinations of letters that are difficult for non-native speakers.
In the end, Bryson’s research shows that there is no real way to measure which language is best; therefore it can’t be determined why English has become so popular.
Why English is So Hard to Master
In the previous section, you learned that English is a flexible and forgiving language. Unfortunately, this flexibility can result in confusion because native speakers are given so much leeway to form words and sentences however they want without thinking about rigid grammar rules. As a result of their ignorance about those rules, few people would be able to explain how to speak English well or tell foreigners why certain constructions are good while others aren’t.
The English language is full of traps for people learning it as a second language. The word “fly” can mean an insect, a way of traveling, or a part of pants. Similarly, the phrase “I could care less” means the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” Pronunciation in English is also unpredictable and unregulated compared to other languages like Chinese and Welsh. For example, words like heard/beard are spelled similarly but pronounced differently; five/give; early/dearly; road/broad, etc., have different pronunciations despite being spelled almost identically.
The fact that English is easy to learn but difficult to master has led to a lot of dialects in former British colonies and immigrant communities. For example, the US and UK have different versions of English, which are drifting apart so rapidly that residents of those countries won’t be able to understand each other in two hundred years.
Whether you like it or not, English is extremely important in today’s world. Corporations and governments use English to communicate with the rest of the world, and there are many people who learn English as a second language. It would be nearly impossible for the media to stay connected to the rest of the world without at least some understanding of English, so it looks like this language is here to stay.
Full Summary of The Mother Tongue
English is a language that we use every day, but most of us don’t think about where the words come from. However, each and every word has a rich history behind it. This article takes you through the history of English and shows how these key points show how Western civilization developed over time. Along the way, you’ll learn more about our culture as well.
You will also learn about the names people came up with for things they had never seen before, as well as who invented the most words in English. You will find out which words are shared by Americans and Europeans.
Big Idea #1: Many of the world’s languages can be traced back to a common ancestral language.
Many people believe that the world is more connected than ever before. However, this may not be true because of the advent of technology and social media. Although we are connected in many ways, such as through language, it’s nothing new. In fact, one way to measure global connection is through words like “brother” or “sister.” They’re similar across different languages because they have a common origin in ancient times.
Sir William Jones learned Sanskrit in India, even though it was long dead. The priests had memorized certain hymns called the Vedas and were passing them down from generation to generation without understanding what they meant.
Jones noticed that there were many similarities between the European languages and Sanskrit. For example, in Latin, “king” is “rex”, and in Sanskrit it’s “raja”. And Sanskrit for the English word “birch” is bhurja.
Jones noticed that many languages have similar grammatical structures. He then compared those languages to Sanskrit, and found more evidence for his theory that all these languages are derived from a common parent language.
Eventually, Jones presented his theory in Calcutta. This presentation led to a new field of study and inspired European scholars to conduct their own research. The Europeans eventually agreed with Jones’ hypothesis and named the parent language Indo-European. Despite the fact that no writings exist from this language’s speakers, linguists have been able to deduce quite a bit about them by analyzing descendent languages.
The words for snow and cold are similar, implying that the Indo-Europeans lived in places with a moderate climate. The same is true of the word “sea”, most likely because they migrated to coastal areas after their inland tribes. Therefore, we can gather from this vocabulary study that they didn’t live near salt water.
Big Idea #2: Repeated conquests of the British Isles changed and expanded the English language.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear English words pop up in other European languages. But this wasn’t always the case – historically, English was the main adopter of foreign words. There were a few major evolutionary points in the development of the language and one came when two Germanic tribes migrated to Britain.
The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were tribes who left their homes in northern Germany. They crossed the North Sea to Britain after the Romans had abandoned that area around 450 AD. The Celts had already been living there for a while, so they displaced them and began developing English as we know it today.
Then came the Viking invasion of 850 AD. It began when 350 Viking warships left Scandinavia and sailed up the river Thames. Thus began a battle that would rage for almost three decades, until the English finally settled things in 878 AD. Afterward, an area of Britain called the Danelaw was established to divide the nation between the southern English and the northern Vikings. This arrangement had lasting linguistic effects; Old Norse words were absorbed into English while some place names are still used today. Eventually, Old Norse and Old English merged into one language. Next came Norman rule by William I (the Conqueror) who invaded England in 1066 with over 10,000 French-derived words added to our vocabulary such as “painter,” “tailor,” etc., while Anglo-Saxon terms like “baker” remained for labor jobs due to their lower class status during this period of time under Norman rule where there was a two-tiered society consisting of both French speakers and commoners who spoke only English at this time which eventually evolved into modern day England after 300 years under Norman control from 1066 – 1350 AD..
When animals were raised on a farm, they went by their English names. However, once they were cooked and served as food, their names changed to French ones like “beef” or “bacon”.
Big Idea #3: As English evolved, new words were added and old ones took on new meanings.
The word “manufacture” used to mean something made by hand, but it has since taken on a new meaning and now refers to machine-made products. This transformation isn’t uncommon because many Latin words have changed over time. For example, the word “brave” once meant something close to “cowardly,” while its root is related to depravity.
Sometimes, words will take on new meanings while keeping the old ones. For instance, “set” has 58 definitions as a noun and 126 definitions as a verb! And then there are all of these new words that people create to describe things that didn’t exist before.
During the 1500s and 1600s, there was a boom in new words.
Shakespeare is responsible for many new words, and Isaac Newton contributed to the English language as well. It’s pretty easy to take a word and alter it so that its meaning or function changes. For example, we can make “visible” become “invisible,” or turn “labyrinth” into “labyrinthine.”
It’s interesting that the addition of a prefix can sometimes create words with similar meanings, such as “habitable” and “inhabitable.” Sometimes new words are created by shortening longer ones.
It’s easier to say that you’re going to the gym rather than a gymnasium. In some cases, it’s simply shortening Latin phrases like “fickle crowd” into something more convenient and easy-to-say like “mob”.
Big Idea #4: Words were created in the New World through adaptation and “America” came about through a misunderstanding.
As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This quote holds true for English because when settlers came to America they encountered many new plants and animals that needed names.
The settlers were quick to introduce Native American words into the English language. For example, “hickory” was taken from pawcohiccora, which is an Algonquin word. Other examples are “squash,” “raccoon” and “hammock.” Some of these words came from Spanish settlers (e.g., “canyon”), while others were taken from Dutch or French terms (“landscape” and “prairie”).
Then there are compound words, which are formed by combining two separate words. Such compounds can be vivid and descriptive, such as rattlesnake or catfish. Nicknames also add color to language; for example, a slot machine in the U.K is called a fruit machine, while an American slot machine could be referred to as a one-armed bandit
Obviously, this can lead to misunderstandings. But actually, the word America comes from an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci who made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean and never saw North America.
Later, a German mapmaker named the continent after Vespucci because he thought that Vespucci had discovered the entire land.
It was too late to change the name of that continent, though. The name “America” had already spread widely by then.
Big Idea #5: Our last names can reveal information about our family’s past.
If you know someone with the last name of Smith, Schmidt, Herrero or Kovacs, they probably share a common ancestor who worked as a metalsmith. It’s also likely that their ancestors lived in England at some point because names like James of Preston were simplified over time to skip the preposition and leave just James Preston.
A surname is a name that distinguishes one person from the rest. It makes sense that people with the same last name wouldn’t live in crowded cities, but if someone did leave for the country, he might take an additional name like John of London.
Other English surnames can be traced back to a descriptive nickname, such as Armstrong. People in other parts of the world would use names like Tolstoy (“fat”) and Gorky (“bitter”). Surnames that indicate lineage include Peterson or Johnson. Some professions are still obvious, but others have died out over time, for instance Fletcher refers to a person who makes bows and arrows, and Bateman is an adulteration of boatman.
While it was easy to tell the two Peters apart, there was no way of keeping track of them over multiple generations. This changed in 1413 with the introduction of medieval bureaucracy in England.
In the past, people didn’t have surnames. Now everyone has a legal name and documents that give their names, occupations and places of residence.
Like this summary? Have too much to read? You'll love my new book summary product Shortform.
Shortform has the world’s best summaries of nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What's special about Shortform:
- The world's highest quality book summaries - comprehensive, concise, and everything you need to know
- Interactive exercises that teach you to apply what you've learned
- Discussion communities - get the best advice from other readers
Sound like what you've been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.
Big Idea #6: Words can be perfectly acceptable in one century and profane swear words in the next.
There are certain words that can get a movie an R rating, but they’re not always the same. What society considers vulgar or profane is constantly changing. There was a time when some of today’s most offensive swear words were used in casual conversation and even on display in public places like London’s Gropecuntlane street (which means “prostitute” lane). Words can also lose their negative connotations over time. Many terms we now consider harmless or cute could have gotten you into trouble long ago.
In the past, calling someone a puppy was considered offensive because it referred to young people who were arrogant. However, in today’s society, that word is not as offensive.
In 1623, the English Parliament made it illegal to swear and threatened to fine people who used words like “Jesus” and “hell.” The laws grew even stricter in 1668, when swearing at your parents could lead to a death sentence!
But the most widespread case of extreme primness began in the 19th century, when morality censors tried to sanitize language. They removed swear words from literature and even changed Shakespeare’s works by removing “damned” from every play. Americans were even more prudish than their English counterparts during this time period.
Throughout history, the English language has always been evolving. It will continue to do so in any time period, regardless of its oppression or liberation.