My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Language is somewhat of a miracle. Bryson writes, "...about 30,000 years ago, there burst forth an enormous creative and cooperative effort which led to the cave paintings at Lascaux, the development of improved, lightweight tools, the control of fire, and many other cooperative arrangements. It is unlikely that any of these could have been achieved without a fairly sophisticated system of language."
We can infer much about the development and migration of humans based on language evidence. In the Indo-European language family, there is a common word for snow but no common word for sea. Therefore, humans started developing lanaguage somewhere cold and inland.
Bryson goes on to explore the oddities and interesting tidbits about how English came to be what we know as English.
Much of our history of people in England depends on an account written by a monk named the Venerable Bede, but his history was written 300 years after the events it described which, as Bryson writes, "...is rather like us writing a history of Elizabethan England based on hearsay."
But it's the history we have, so even when it's confusing and incomplete, we go with it.
Which is a metaphorical parallel with English. It's a mess. Boil means to bring water to a certain temperature AND also a gross pimple-like thing on your skin. Which are totally unrelated.
Also, sometimes a word means what it means and also means the opposite. Bryson points out, "Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean cut in half or stuck together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure but a horse that has bolted has taken off."
And it's not just our vocabularly. There are endless vagaries in pronunciation; "The combination 'ng' is usually treated as one discrete sound, as in bring and sing. But in fact we make two sounds with it--employing a soft 'g' with singer and a hard 'g' with finger ... We make another unconscious distinction between the hard 'th' of those and the soft one of thought. Some dictionaries fail to note this and yet it makes all the difference between mouth as a noun and mouth as a verb."
Bryson's book is full of little a-ha moments like that. He also has a little fun with the rules of grammar, most of which he thinks were originally quite dubious and originated in the mid-to-late 1700s, "a period of the most resplendent silliness, when grammarians and scholars seemed to be climbing over one another (or each other; it doesn't really matter) in a mad scramble to come up with fresh absurdities. This was the age when, it was gravely insisted, Shakespeare's laughable ought to be changed to laugh-at-able and reliable should be made into relionable."
Bryson doesn't discuss the Internet or Social Media because this book was published in 1990.
"At the time of writing, a television viewer in Britain could in a single evening watch Neighbors, a Australian soap opera, Cheers, an American comedy set in Boston, and EastEnders, a British program set among cockneys in London. All of these bring into people's homes in one evening a variety of vocabulary, accents, and other linguistic influences that they would have been unlikely to experience in a single lifetime just two generations ago."
So imagine what the internet has done since then. Netflix and other on-demand viewing programs. I would love for him to re-release a new edition with a forward that explores what we've done to language in the last 30 years because of these globalizing resources. Also, now that dictionaries live online, they are ever-changeable and updateable. I think Bryson could have a field-day with that.
Other interesting tidbits:
Did you know tidbit used to be titbit, but then the world went through a fit of properness and it was changed to tiDbit?
Did you know that written Icelandic has not changed all that much so modern Icelanders can easily read sagas written thousands of years ago?
Saint Patrick wasn't Irish. He was Welsh. The only reason he ended up in Ireland is that he was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was 16.
The Domesday book is pronounced "doomsday" because long o sounds used to be pronounced ooo. But it's not about doom. Domesday refers to "domestic"
The word "roundabout" is of American origin. It was invented by an American, Logan Persall Smith, who was living in England and was one of the members of a 1920s panel of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English. This panel decided how things should be pronounced and used, as well as making rules about vocabulary. Before Smith, traffic circles in Britain were called "gyratory circuses."
So, in Cockney, there's a tradition of playing a rhyming game to come up with new meanins for words. For example, bottle means ass; the rhyming phrase "bottle and glass" was a coy rhyming replacement for "ass" which was eventually just shortened to "bottle." This is where we get our term "bread" meaning "money;" bread and honey.
Also, in Bryson's list of dead words, I really want to bring back teetotaciously. I think "helliferocious" is already back, with an alternate spelling (hella ferocious)
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