Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bill Bryson

Love Bill Bryson!  Have probably read all of his books, with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (a bit of a memoir from him)  being a particular favorite.  Recently I've been rereading, for the 3rd or 4th time, his book Mother Tongue, his book about how English and American English came to be.  I'm a bit of a linguaphile, a lover of words and languages, so I find it all fascinating.
I love how adaptive English has been, we got shampoo from India, caucus from the Alonquin Indians, ketchup from China, potato from Haiti, sofa from Arabia, slogan from Gaelic.
 Bryson says that many Greek words, became Latin words, which became French words, which became English words. For instance garbage was brought to England by the Normans, who had adapted it from an Italian dialectal word, garbazo, which had been taken from old Italian garbuglio (a mess), which in turn had come from the Latin bullire (to boil or bubble).
For centuries English  was the language of the lower classes, the nobility spoke French,  and they did what they pleased with it with no formal rules.  So it became less formal, had less inflection and grammatical changes happened all the time.
He also talks about how words and expressions differ between British English and American English.  Some that were common in Elizabethan England that died out in England were "fall" as a synonym for autumn, "mad" for angry, "progress" as a verb, "platter" of a large dish, "assignment"in the sense of a job or task, "deck of cards", "slim" in the sense of small (as in a slim chance), "mean" in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, "trash" for rubbish, "hog" as a synonym for pig, "mayhem", "magnetic", "chore", "skillet", "ragamuffin", "homespun" and the expression "I guess".   He says some of these have started to filter back across the Atlantic and you'll hear them in England again.
He also writes about the "Great Vowel Shift" and how words came to be pronounced as they are, so fascinating.
As I said, this is a reread for me, I reread it every couple of years and is a book I always recommend to people who are as fascinated languages and words as I am.

4 comments:

  1. Have you read "In A Sunburned Country" about Australia? It is my favorite one that he has written. (It might have a different title depending on the country of publication.) It is so funny, and he has captured that Aussie spirit perfectly!

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  2. My DH is a big fan of Bill Bryson and has most if not all of his books. I shall check for this one and read it if it's there. I've often thought that many words that Americans use must go back to the original Elizabethan settlers and it sounds as though I was right.

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  3. Another Bill Bryson fan here. The last two of his books I read were 'Shakespeare' and 'Home' I haven't read the one you mentioned but must look out for it as it sounds fascinating:)

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  4. I like Bill as well and you need to also read his "At Home" -- it goes into detail about different rooms of the house, what they were used for and how they came to be named what they are and other really interesting things!

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