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Mother Tongue

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    Mother Tongue

    If you like words and the English language then I recommend reading Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.

    Bryson was born and gew up in Des Moines in Iowa, USA but has spent many years in England as a journalist.

    Mother Tongue is about the English language, its history, its pronunciation, its quirkiness, contradictions and rules (basically there aren’t any). Rules that have been invented are regularly ignored. Perhaps the most famous it that the infinitive shouldn’t be split – ignored by Star Trek “to boldly go…..”.

    William Shakespeare added some 1700 new words to the language, though many came and went.

    Spelling is another topic. According to Bryson more than eighty different spellings of Shakespeare name have been found. And, he says, “Shakespeare himself did not spell his name the same twice in any of his six known signatures and even spelled it two ways on one document, his will”. And he never spelled it as we do now.

    This is no dry academic study but a well written and fascinating read. Here are a few quirks of the language from the book

    1. Normally a prefix of “in” changes a noun to the opposite. For example flexible is bendy but inflexible is not bendy. But both flammable and inflammable mean combustible.

    2. Cleave is it’s own opposite. Cleave can mean to separate (as to cleave in two) or to join (as inTherefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”).

    3. Two words can be stuck together to make a new one. boat and house can be joined to make boathouse. Or joined the other way houseboat to make a different word.

    English must be a nightmare for foreigners to learn.

    Ravel and unravel mean the same thing.

    Some countries regulate their languages for character and purity, obviously France and North Korea. But, most languages are the same chaotic mess that English is. Take Asia, as with Europe, every country has a different language. And, every Asian country has taken significant vocabulary from other Asian countries (and from English and some other European languages in recent decades). As in English, words arriving from different languages follow different rules. And, as with English, people throughout the world tend to somewhat randomly change the meaning of various words overtime. It's also typical in Asian countries for people to have to learn two or three alphabets.

    After studying many languages, I think English is one of the easiest. English actually is more consistent than many other languages. And, many exceptional words are used infrequently. How often do you hear "ravel" or "inflammable"? Any immigrant would do just fine learning only unravel and flammable. Cleave is an uncommon word, and its context makes it simple (cleave apart vs. cleave to). What's more, the words in English are vastly more distinguishable than words in Asian languages. No contest. And, please, telling Asian-language speakers that English is difficult because boathouse and houseboat mean two different things will have them rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter at such naivete about compounds in Asian languages. In Chinese, put together water and dog together, and you get neither. At least a boathouse and houseboat both have something to do with housing and boats.

    English is a little harder than Spanish, but English and Spanish are so similar that Hispanic immigrants should have little trouble picking up English.

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