If you are not necessarily surprised about the following statements, questions or
information from Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, you won't have to read this book. You would also look
in vain for the humour Bill Bryson usually employs in his books. Nevertheless this one is as
interesting as his other works, but it is non-fictional.
In any case, have a look at the following points:
1. In spite of its large vocabulary, the English language has two advantages:
- pronouns are largely uninflected (E: you; G: du, dich, dir, Sie, Ihnen);
- it is free of gender (E: the; G: der, die, das)
2. Did you know that of all the Indo-European languages (Indo-Germanic is supposedly the common source for all
other languages) the Lithuanian language is the one that has changed the least, so that a Lithuanian
can even understand the extinct language of Sanskrit?
3. Did you know that in 813 Charlemagne ordered all sermons in his realm be delivered in the lingua romana rustica,
which meant that the lingua latina ceased to exist and variations of it evolved (this is the reason why French,
Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian are all modern versions of Latin)?
4. Latin was split between the classical Latin (Cicero etc.) and Latin vulgate (= the Latin of the common people).
Thus sometimes two versions of the same term entered the Romance languages, eg. classical Latin: equus (Pferd) and caballus
in Latin vulgate.
5. Although Wales is officially bilingual (Welsh, En), only 20% of the Welsh population speaks Welsh.
People from Britanny in France can understand Welsh-speaking people from Wales.
6. Only 1% of the Irish population speak Gaelic, mostly in pockets along the west coast (Gaeltacht); but the
language there is on the decline.
7. Although Scottish Gaelic is growing, the percentage of the Gaelic-speaking people in Scotland is only 2.5%.
8. After A.D. 450 (withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain) Germanic tribes poured into Britain and influenced its
language (then partly Celtic, partly Latin). They were Frisians, Jutes, Saxons and Angles from Northern Germany.
9. The aggressive Norseman or Danes (Vikings) mostly raided the North of Britain. More than 1400 place names in northern England
remind of the Scandinavian origin. The 'Danelaw' between London and Chester was the southern border of the land occupied by the Vikings.
10. Did you know that the Normans were originally Vikings who settled in Normandy in about A.D. 800 and
adopted the French language. When Duke William landed a little more than 200 years later near Hastings, French began
to exert influence on the 'English' language.
The Norman society had two tiers: the French-speaking aristocracy and the English-speaking (Anglo-Saxon)
peasantry. That's why animals on a farm were eg. called sheep, cow or ox, but once cooked and brought to the table, they were
given French names like mutton, veal or beef.
11. Although French remained the language of Parliament and the courts until 1362, English gaíned the upper hand and was
established as the main language from c. 1400. It was more Chaucer's Middle English than Old English.
12. The transition from medieval to modern English was ushered by William Caxton's first book printed in
13. Shakespeare's contemporaries, the actors John Hemmming and Henry Condell, assembled an anthology
of Shakespeare's work, which is called the First Folio (1623).
14. Did you know that the word shampoo derives from India, ketchup from China, potato from
Haiti, or slogan from Gaelic?
15. Did you know that the word bankrupt comes from the Italian banca rotta, meaning
broken bench? When a banker in the Middle Ages became insolvent, his bench was broken up.
16. A typical feature of the English language is its tendency to keep the Anglo-Saxon noun but to adopt a
foreign form for its adjective, eg. eyes/ocular, mouth/oral, book/literary, water/aquatic, house/domestic,
moon/lunar, son/filial, sun/solar or town/urban.
Sometimes two adjectives exist side by side, one of Latin, one of Germanic origin, eg. earthly and terrestial,
motherly and maternal or timely and temporal.
17. English is half Anglo-Saxon and the other half originates from various languages, such as French,
Latin or Scandinavian.
18. Shakespeare created at least one tenth of the words he used in his literary work, i.e. 1,700 out of 17,677.
Coinage of words was at its climax between 1500 and 1650 when the English language adopted at least 10,000
19. An American going into a London department store with a shopping list of vest, knickers, suspenders, jumper and pants
would be given something quite different from what he expected: BE vest/AE undershirt, BE knickers/AE
panties, BE sweater/AE jumper, BE braces/AE suspenders.
20. In the American East groceries are put in a bag, in the South in a poke, everywhere else in
America in a sack.
21. People in Philadelphia don't use downtown but city center, and not blocks but
22. Why do people in New York City say doo-awg for dog, kee-ab for cab,
thoid for third, erster for oyster or coo-awfee for coffee?
23. Did you know that the Gaelic word taoiseach (Irish for prime minister) is pronounced
24. Did you know that the northern Irish distinguish between a North Down or east Belfast accent (Protestant) and
a South Armagh or west Belfast (Catholic) accent?
25. The main distinguishing characteristic of the English speech is the ability to talk without moving the lips (Prince Charles)?
26. Did you know that Cajun (a kind of English spoken in Louisiana) is related to French-speaking inhabitants
of Acadia (based on Nova Scotia), who were forced by the British in 1750 to move to southern Louisiana?
27. Did you know that Guallah is a language spoken by a quarter of a million people on the
Sea Islands of Georgia nd South Carolina and is a blend between and West African?
28. The most exotic variety of English, however, is that spoken on Tristan da Cunha, a small group of
islands halfway between Africa and South America. Their isolation from the rest of the world is reflected in their language.
It's absolutely ungrammatical, i.e. people there don't say How are you? but
How you is?
29. Which of the following words are misspelled?
supercede, conceed, procede, idiosyncracy, concensus, accomodate, impressario, irresistable, rhythym,
opthalmologist, diptheria, anamoly, afficianado, caesarian, grafitti. Answer: all are..
30. There are two ways of rendering speech into writing: one is with an alphabet (such as we have) or by
a pictographic-ideographic system, such as the Chinese or Japanese have.
Whereas it takes most western languages only 100 symbols to write, it requires 7000 from the Japanese
language. Think how much more complicated a Japanese computer keyboard must be.