There have been many well-documented changes in the history of the English language. Ask a lexicographer or linguist and they'll be able to tell you when the Old English was displaced with New World English (1620.) A British judge, who tried to learn Sanskrit in his spare time (Sir William Jones) started what they might not be able to tell you without running on and by using way too many large words; historical linguistics.
Bill Bryson, expatriated to England for 10 years before breaking into the travel writing scene back home in America, has written a textbook on the subject that doesn't carry the feel usually associated with the bane of the college student's existence. “Mother Tongue: English and how it got this way” marks Bryson's first foray into the world of language and academic writing.
A natural observer of the human condition and nature, Bryson brings the wit and insight seen is his previous works “In A Sunburned Country”and “A Walk in the Woods.” These two books deal with his experiences travelling across Australia and hiking the Appalachian Trail. In these books he shows the reader that history can be funny, “Romans had no word for gray. To them it was just another shade of dark green or dark blue.” As can travel companions and most importantly, that we Americans aren't as cool as we think we are. His writing style is direct and not overly wordy. He never flaunts his knowledge, and would rather talk down about himself to get a laugh than show another person at anything but his or her best.
So it is in “Tongue” that Bryson dissects the origins of spoken language, it's spread and consequent changes from Neolithic times to present day. One of Bryson's attributes as a writer is his ability to inform the reader without seeming condescending, as most textbook writers tend to be. He even takes a lighter look at the language we use and abuse in chapters devoted to slang and swearing, word play and his own take on the future of the English language.
Some of the nuggets in the book are mined from expert research and cooperation from leaders in the field of linguistics including Robert Fulk of the University of Indiana and Dr. Takasuke Matsuo of Osaka, Japan. A textbook in paperback form, this 257-page ode to all things English provides you with information such as Shakespeare coined one-tenth of the 17, 000 different words he used in his writing. That's 1,700 words!
Although the subject is somewhat dull, the idiosyncrasies of our language can not be overlooked. Who else can think of reasons for words with no root like “befuddled?” Can anyone be “fuddled?” Bryson's idea of a sentence differs from the normal subject, predicate verb form, “If I inform you that I have just crashed your car and you reply, 'What!' or `Where?' or `How!' you have clearly expressed a complete thought, uttered a sentence.”
The book offers a look at a subject most of us take for granted and reads as quickly as the rest of the half-finished books on your shelf from the summer.
The difference with Bryson's book is that unlike the last Stephen King contrivance or Clive Cussler thriller, this book can help do what you've always wanted to do: correct your mother for once, using the mother tongue.