In December 2009, I took part in reddit.com's Secret Santa project, and amongst other things I received was a copy of Bill Bryson’s book on linguistics “The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way”.

I was quite excited! I'd read Bryson’s travel books about America, the UK and Australia; and found them to be clever, witty and generally well-written. Sadly though, my enthusiasm for this particular book didn't last very long. From almost the first page on, there are scores of mistakes, urban legends presented as facts and statements which seem to have been half-remembered from conversations years ago. All-in-all, the whole book demonstrated of a complete lack of fundamental understanding of how languages work - something essential to a writer of a book on linguistics, one would think!

The first few pages rase an eyebrow or two, but no serious mistakes are presented until much further into the book - page 13 for example (the book starts on page 11):

“The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between "I wrote" and "I have written".”

Lucky I paid enough attention in GCSE French (5 minutes would suffice) to research Mr Bryson’s book for him! ‘Mind’, as any cheap dictionary would tell you, is « espirit », and ‘brain’ would be « cerveau », just as a ‘man’ is an « homme », and ‘gentleman’ would be « monsieur », or even the more direct equivalent « gentilhomme ». As for ‘I wrote’ vs. ‘I have written’, « j'écrivais » and « j’ai écrit » work just fine.

Things go well for a while, and Bryson makes no further cock-ups until page 14, with a sentence that caused my mouth to literally fall open:

“English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget's Thesaurus. Most speakers of other languages are not aware that thesaurus exist.”

I had to look to my right to check that I had indeed bought a Duden Thesaurus der Deutschen Sprache as well as a Thésaurus Français, and that it hadn't been all an incredibly vivid - not to mention expensive - dream.

This sentence is a prime example of the central theme to this book: English is the clearest, most logical and most useful language there is, and the rest of the world is better off learning it now and forgetting their inefficient, backward gruntings. It’s a sentiment summed up quite nicely by the fact that the index contains the entry ‘English, advantages of’, but ‘English, disadvantages of’ is nowhere to be found.

Page 14 also contained the gem:

“The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow.”

This urban legend has been so completely exploded that even Wikipedia has an article about it, a fact which has shaken my faith to its very core; isn't Wikipedia supposed to be the flawed, biased encyclopædia full of inaccuracies and mistakes, whereas books are reliable, trustworthy guardians of knowledge?

Page 15 continues his English-is-superior theme with

“Not only can we say "I kicked the dog", but also "The dog was kicked by me" - a construction that would be impossible in many other languages”

So there you have it: English is almost unique in that it has a passive form. Does this make Welsh three times better then, with its three passive forms? What about Japanese, where the passive is used more often than the active in some cases? Of the top of my head:

• Mae'r ci wedi cael ei cicio gan mi (Welsh) • Der Hund wurde von mir getreten (German) • Le chien a été lancé de moi (French) • Hunden ble sparket av meg (Norwegian)

A line on page 17 made me chuckle:

“In Japanese, the word for foreigner means 'stinking of foreign hair'.”

It's been almost 2 years since I studied Japanese, but I seem to remember that the word gaikokujin (‘foreigner’) comes from the kanji 外 (outside) 国 (country) 人 (person).

The next mistake crops up on page 28, where Bill tells us that:

“...creole (from French créole, "native")...”

I must admit, I was wrong about this one. I had always thought that ‘creole’ came from the French créer (i.e., a “created” language), but it turns out it comes from the Latin word creare, meaning the same. Still, it took all of 2 minutes to open up a dictionary and check the etymology, something Mr Bryson had obviously not bothered to do.

On page 23, we learn about language death:

“Many other languages disappeared over time, among them Cornish, Manx, Gaulish, Lydian, Oscan, Umbrian, and two which once dominated Europe: Celtic and Latin.”

Aside from the fact that some people may argue that Cornish and Manx aren’t dead, this is the first time I’ve read about a language called Celtic. Up until now, I'd known it only as a language family, to which all the other languages he’s mentioned belong (except Lydian and Latin, of course).

As a native Welsh speaker, page 35 crashed into my realm with such nonsense as:

“Many languages manage without quite basic grammatical or lexical features, while others burden themselves with remarkable complexities. A Welsh speaker must choose between five ways of saying than: ‘na’, ‘n'’, ‘nag’, ‘mwy’ or ‘yn fwy’”

Bryson’s train of though veers dangerously close to accurate here. Both ‘na’ and ‘nag’ do indeed mean ‘than’, however it’s hardly “remarkably complex”: ‘na’ is used before a consonant, whereas ‘nag’ is used before a vowel, just like ‘a’ and ‘an’. ‘Mwy’ is the Welsh word for ‘more’, just as ‘yn fwy’, however this is a mutated form lifted from a different grammatical setting. As for ‘n’’, your guess is a good as mine.

He goes on:

“Try getting your tongue around this sentence ...: ‘a ydycg wedi talu a dodi eich tocyn yn y golwg?’ It translates roughly as ‘did you remember to pay?’ and, yes, it is about as unpronounceable as it looks. In fact, more so because Welsh pronunciations rarely bear much relation to their spellings - at least when viewed from an English-speaking perspective.”

Aside from the incorrect spelling (ydycg should be ydych) and the omission of a key word (i.e., chi, the word for ‘you’), it really is a rough translation, as it actually says “have you paid and placed your ticket in view?”. Far from being unpronounceable, this is actually one of the easier sentences that Welsh has to offer. Words like ‘brwydrwr’ (‘fighter’), ‘cyfrifiadur’ (‘computer’) and ‘Dwygyfylchi’ (the name of a town) give English-speakers far more trouble.

What’s more, saying that Welsh pronunciation rarely bears much relation to their spellings “from an English-speaking perspective” is a bit like saying that ‘Japanese pronunciation bears little relation to those strange squiggles - at least when viewed from an English-speaker’s perspective!’ It's a nonsensical comment that shouldn't be included in a supposedly academic exploration of language.

As a speaker of German, I was surprised to read on page 75 that:

“A final curious fact is that although English is a Germanic tongue and the Germans clearly were one of the main founding groups of America, there is almost no language from which we have borrowed fewer words than German. Among the very few are ‘kindergarten’ and ‘hinterland’.”

What about angst, Bildungsroman, blitz, dachshund, diesel, doppelganger, frankfurter, hamburger, lager, leitmotiv, nickel, panzer, quartz, realpolitik, rucksack, schnitzel, waltz, wunderkind and zeitgeist to name but a few?

Page 75 also appears to show that Bill hasn't read his own book, when he says:

“Words are created. Often they spring seemingly from nowhere. Take dog. For centuries the word in English was hound (or hund). Then suddenly in the late Middle Ages, dog - a word etymologically unrelated to any other known word - displaced it.”

which directly contradicts a statement he’d previously made on page 25:

“The word for dog, for instance, is suspiciously similar in Amerind, Uralic and Proto-Indo-European.”

Indeed, the English word ‘dog’ comes from the Old English docga, another piece of information I found hidden away in one of those mysterious “dictionaries” that everyone’s going on about.

The next statement to support my theory that Bryson’s never seen a dictionary comes on page 118:

“To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organizing documents. Filing systems often exist only in people's heads. If a secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.”

Interesting. I confess that don't know anything about Chinese, but I can speak for Japanese in that dictionaries, classroom registers, song names in iTunes and - I presume - filing cabinets are ordered by the hiragana readings of the kanji, a syllabary of 48 characters with a logical order, just like any other alphabet.

Bryson continues to air his ill-researched views on the Japanese language over the next few pages, saying:

Japanese is a blend of three systems: a pictographic system of 7,000 characters called kanji and two separate syllabic alphabets each consisting of 48 characters. One of these alphabets, ‘katakana’ (sometimes shortened to ‘kana’), is used to to render words and names (such as Dunkin' Donuts and Egg McMuffin) that the ancient devisers of kanji failed to foresee. Since many of the kanji characters have several pronunciations and meanings - the word 'ka' alone has 214 separate meanings - a second syllabic alphabet was devised. Called hiragana and written as small symbols above the main text, it tells the reader which of the many possible interpretations of the kanji characters is intended.”

In just four lines, Bryson makes a book-load of mistakes. Let's break it down into an anal-retentive list (my favourite kind!):

    • The word ‘kana’ (がな) is not an abbreviation, but rather the name of the two phonetic Japanese alphabets, hiragana and katakana.
    • Katakana is used for writing foreign loanwords, not, as Bill insinuates, for writing words for which there are no kanji. This is the job of hiragana.
    • The name of the script used to write the pronunciation of unfamiliar kanji is called furigana.

This next section is a little difficult for me to comment on without me looking like a patriotic Brit sticking up for his country against a Yank that doesn't know what he’s talking about, but that’s exactly what I am, I suppose. Tallyho!:

“...without America's contribution, English today would enjoy a global importance about on a par with Portuguese...”

It is of course true that without America, the world may never have been introduced to such words as barf, dude, fanny-pack or Big Mac, but I think it's quite fair to say that thanks to the British Empire™, English was already well on its way to becoming a world language by the time the colonies broke away.

Without America’s aggressive export of its culture however, it is indeed fair to say that French and German would be following close behind English for status as a world language.

On page 184, Mr Bryson again displays his astonishing lack of even a basic understanding of Japanese and its spelling with the following statement:

“Thus the sumato (smart) and the nyuu ritchi (newly rich) Japanese person seasons his or her conversation with uptodatu expressions like gurama foto (glamour photo), haikurasu (High class), kyapitaru gein (capital gain), and rushawa (rush hour).”

Of course, these mistakes aren’t too serious, unless of course you’re claiming to be an authority on the subject (which Bryson is). There are a few spelling mistakes, for example, “sumato” should be “sumāto” or “sumaato” (スマート) and “rushawa” (which would be pronounced /ruːʃaʊa/) should be “rasshu awā” or “rasshu awaa” (ラッシュアワー).

As for “uptodatu”, this word would be impossible to spell in Japanese, as the strict syllabary can only express consonants that are followed by vowels. The correct spelling would be “apptsūdēto” or “apptsuudeeto” (アップツーデート). Again, these spellings could’ve been corrected by anyone with a basic knowledge as to how the Japanese writing system functions.

On page 184:

“...the French don't go running or jogging, they go ‘footing’. They don't engage in a spot of sunbathing, but rather go in for ‘le bronzing’.”

Now, as a Brit, I'm all for sticking the boot in when it comes to the French and their nonsensical nose-language, especially when they steal our words, but only when done correctly. It's true that the French faire du jogging, but ‘running’ is courrir, and the word bronze was actually taken into English from French in the 17th century.

Really Mr Bryson, if you want to laugh at the French for stealing English words, why not point out ‘le parking’, or the hilariously mis-pronounced ‘shampooing’, which the French tongue - not to mention the nose - has deformed into /ʃɑ̃'pwɛ̃/?

On page 191, Bryson introduces us to Esperanto, a language which:

“...is considerably more polished and accessible than Volapük. It has just 16 rules, no definite articles no irregular endings and no illogicalities of spelling.”
(Emphasis mine.)

Now, I know nothing about Esperanto, but I know a definite article when I see one. Just two sentences later, we're given an example of the language:

“En la komenco, Dio kreis le cielon kaj la teron.”

See those words I've put in bold there? Yes, you don't need to be an Esperantist to know what they are.

So, on to insults. On page 214:

“English is unusual in including the impossible and the pleasurable in its litany of profanities. ... Can there be, when you think about it, a more improbable sentiment than "Get fucked!" We might as well snarl, "Make a lot of money!" or "Have a nice day!"”

Whilst anyone who's translated anything from English will tell you that the word “fuck” almost never has a direct translation, my French dictionary of insults informs me that one can be instructed not only to « Va te faire foutre ! », but also the much more imaginative « Va te faire voir chez les Grecs ! », for those of us of that persuasion.

Not only that, but the German „fick dich!“ also works quite nicely when telling someone to go fuck themselves, as well as the Norwegian «få knullet!».

The best mistake in the chapter on swearing comes on page 214 however, where we’re informed that:

“The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up at 2:00 am, rather oddly adopted the word ‘ravintaolassa’. It means “in the restaurant”.

Whilst I’m told it’s true that ‘ravintaolassa’ does indeed mean ‘in the restaurant’, it’s certainly not a swearword. Somewhere in the world, there’s a Finn with a great dinner-party anecdote about how he tricked a gullible American tourist into thinking a perfectly ordinary word is the only swearword in the whole language, and now that tourist’s gone and written a book about it!

The odd thing is though, that you need only spend a short amount of time with any Finn, and you'd soon learn that Finnish has loads of swearwords, some of which extremely imaginative, for example “suksi vittuu!” means literally “ski into a cunt!”. Odd indeed.

So, there you have it. Altogether, the book is quite well written, and makes the boring subject of linguistics interesting and accessible, which is a worthy goal, if you ask me. Sadly though, the sheer amount of mistakes mean that this book is only good for mild amusement and nothing more.

The fact that I - someone who’s far from an expert at linguistics - have spotted so many glaring errors leads me to wonder just how many other “facts” in this book has Bill Bryson pulled out of his arse? Just like a Hollywood movie, it’s entertaining, but nothing in it should be taken as fact, rather seen as “based on a true story”.

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