Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

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Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Jun 09, 2008 7:13 am

Bill Bryson is his usual entertaining self in this offering to linguistics. If sometimes he gets bogged down in giving just one too many examples he can be forgiven as they are, by the very nature of the subject, lightly amusing. The book is a good bedtime read.

However do you ever come across the situation in a book, which it is purportedly written based on fact, when you suddenly find that the author has made a blunder? Entertaining or no he has stated as fact something that you know is not so. Bill Bryson falls into this trap in Mother Tongue and from that point on I found myself questioning whether he had got it right when speaking about other alleged facts.

He states, “the Eskimos, as is well known, have 50 words for types of snow – though curiously no word for just plain snow.” (p4). See here to find out if Phil White, Word Wizard, agrees with that point.

He further poos in his nest when he makes several observations about Australian English. The first relates to differences in terminology when he states, “There are one or two differences in terminology across the country – a tub of ice cream is called a bucket in New South Wales and a pixie in Victoria – but hardly more than that.” (p103). Oooooops! For a start he got the Victorian word wrong, it should be “dixie”, and if he is making a point he should include the South Australian word “dandy. But his whole point is absolute rubbish. A quick read through Word Map (Kel Richards, ABC Books, 2005) and then a visit to the website Word Map will reveal the extent and variety of regional Australian English.

The second stems from the following statement, “In Australia people eat cookies not biscuits.” Rubbish! Unfortunately one of our greatest biscuit icons, Arnotts biscuits, may have suffered the indignity of being sold to the yanks but we still call what we eat with our tea or coffee a biscuit. Having said that I do not deny that American franchises, eg Maccas, do attempt to pervert the course of Aussie English with their cookies and Arnotts have taken to using that un-Australian word cookie but biscuit is alive and well and eating wonderfully Downunder.

Bill then tries to make the point that we use American spellings and quotes the example of labour/labor as being evidence of this. Unfortunately Bill didn’t do enough research to realize the labor should actually be spelled with a capital /L/ as it only appears as the name of the left-wing Aussie political party. (see Australian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd Edition).

He moves on to the Great Australian Adjective – bloody, (p215) – all I have to say is that he should’ve read Blooming English (Kate Burridge, ABC Books, 2005, p208) before saying anything.

So?? .. by all means a book worth reading .. but accurate ?? .. keep an open mind and check the small print.

WoZ in Aus 09/06/08
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Berale » Tue Jun 10, 2008 3:02 am

Too late, alas, too late... I read this book a few years ago and found it, as you say, a great bedtime read, and I'm afraid the section on Australian English gave me lots of laughs - the meteorological term "scona" for instance.

But it's good to be reminded that even Bill Bryson is fallible.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Shelley » Fri Aug 01, 2008 8:58 pm

He would be the first to admit it, I'm sure. I've read a lot of Bill Bryson -- just finished Notes from a Small Island today. I especially appreciate his self-deprecating humor.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Ortolani » Tue Aug 12, 2008 5:31 pm

Yes, I'm sure he'd be the first to admit it. The self-deprecating humor is actually something I like about his books too. But I just finished reading "Mother Tongue" and there are a good few errors in that book. For instance, he says on p186 that Esperanto has no definite article and then goes on to use it in an example phrase on the same page! (Maybe he meant indefinite). Bryson also seems to have got the impression that the Irish (Irish Gaelic) language is onl its last legs. He claims that 94% of Irish people speak only English and that Scottish Gaelic is spoken by twice as many people in Scotland as Irish is in Irelnad. In fact, censuses show that only about 55 or 60 thousand people speak SG in Scotland, while betwseen 1.6 and 1.8 million Irish people speak at least some Irish Gaelic (i.e. over 40% of the population), with around 540,000 using Irish on a daily basis. He even misspells the government body 'Bord na Gaeilge' as 'Bord na Gaelige'!

All that said, it's a pretty good book, and worth reading - just as long as you don't take it as gospel.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by tony h » Thu Aug 14, 2008 12:33 am

I was recommended it as a good introduction to Bill Bryson. I got the impression
that he didn't care. It is just another book to make another dollar. There seemed to be no more serious research than that found round the average bar.

The one I remember was the suggestion that because the Principia Mathematica was published in Latin this evidenced that Latin was the more natural language in which to publish.

Isacc Newton had published Optics some years earlier in English! Latin was chosen for his later work to weed out the average reader.

I suspect it is better thought of as a joke book. I guess some day he will come out with a corrected version that he can then sell to all his originally misinformed readers.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Liam - Galway » Thu Aug 21, 2008 11:07 pm

I agree it contained a number of errors & reckon it has been his poorest book but it would be a pity if it put anybody off reading the other Bryson books. They are generally very entertaining.

Just on the issue of accuracy, I'd be very careful about relying on Irish Census information! - it is possible that 500,000 Irish use it every day but the vast majority of those do so in school where it compulsory for most students. The actual number of adults who would converse in Gaelic is a very small number.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Ortolani » Sat Aug 23, 2008 10:24 am

Yes, you seem to be right there Liam. Looking at a couple of different sources, the number of adults who actually use it as their everyday language outside the education system seems to be probably less than a hundred thousand. The point is anyway that Bill's figures for the number of people who CAN speak Irish Gaelic (not necessarily use it as their everyday language within or outside the education system) are definitely much too low.

I agree with you that it would be a pity to let the book put you off Bryson's other works, which are generally very good. I'm surprised really that it was recommended to Tony as an introduction to the author.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Aug 24, 2008 6:26 pm

.. Liam and Ortolani .. just the people I need to help me with some Gaelic phrases .. would you be able to give me the correct pronunciation for the following phrases ..

Is Gradhaich Leam Thu
Is Rhu M'Annsachd
Mo Ghadh Bithbhuan
Anam Cara

.. if you are able it would help if you could write them again using "written" English as a guide .. is there much difference between Irish G and Scottish G?? .. ok ok so I'm a bloody ignorant Aussie but I AM wanting to learn ..

Ta muchly, WoZ in Aus
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Cathal » Mon Aug 25, 2008 3:51 pm

Hi WoZ, if I can butt in here... I can't help you with the first three as I think they are in Scottish Gaelic which I know nothing much about. Anam cara though is either Irish or a Scottish Gaelic phrase which happens to be the same as in Irish. In Irish it would be pronounced kind of like 'ann-im ka-ra'.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic are indeed pretty similar although they are different languages... the reason being that both Scottish and Manx Gaelic started off as dialects of Old Irish spoken by Irish settlers in Scotland and the Isle of Man. They've now evolved into different but still fairly similar languages, a bit like Danish/Swedish/Norwegian or Spanish/Italian. Apparently speakers of the northern (Ulster) dialect of Irish can still more or less make themselves be understood by Scottish Gaelic speakers.
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Re: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Aug 27, 2008 4:20 pm

.. Cathal, much appreciated .. one down, three to go .. and thanks for that lead on how the languages developed ..

WoZ in Aus 28/08/08
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