The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way Review

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way
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The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way ReviewThis book is certainly amusing. It's very enjoyable for a novice to read.
But, as many others have pointed out, every page is just error after factual error. Bryson simply does not understand how languages work, and whatever his sources are are frequently wrong. My favorite mistake is when he claims that in Finnish, there is only one swear word, ravintolassa, meaning "in the restaurant" (page 214). Now, ravintolassa DOES mean "in the restaurant," but that's ALL it means. Finnish has plenty of native swear words (saatana, perkele, vittu, jumalauta, and more), and I still cannot imagine how Bryson came to the conclusion that, not only did it have only one, but that it was the word for "in the restaurant." It's truly mind-boggling.
Among my other favorite errors are when he says that "Estimates of the number of languages in the world usually fix on a figure of about 2,700" (page 37; all estimates I've ever seen generally give between 5,000 and 6,000). Or when he completely misunderstands the concept of case affixes when discussing Finnish (page 35; he seems to think that the various words created are utterly unanalyzable to the speakers. By analogy, then, English speakers would need to learn the plural word "cats" separately from the singular "cat," rather than simply extending their knowledge of the plural suffix -s to the word "cat." Bryson fails to make the rather important distinction between "word" and "root").
He also buys the extremely controversial arguments of people like Merritt Ruhlen and presents them as complete fact ("Recent studies of cognates...have found possible links between some of those must unlikely language parteners: for instance, between Basque and Na-Dene...and between Finnish and Eskimo-Aleut. No one has come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how a language spoken only in a remote corner of the Pyrenees could have come to influence Indian languages of the New World, but the links between many cognates are too numerous to explain in terms of simple coincidence" -- page 24). There hardly exists a serious linguist in the world who would agree with that statement.
And of course there is the famous "Eskimo" Words for Snow Myth, which results in large part from a total misunderstanding of the nature of polysynthetic languages (page 14).
Unfortunately, many of the errors Bryson makes are much harder to catch, in that they involve concepts (such as his apparent conviction that English is somehow unique among languages in its expressiveness and form...he also ironically says on page 17 that "most books on English imply in one way or another that our language is superior to all others"), rather than factual claims, since incorrect facts are easier to refute.
Throughout the book, Bryson repeatedly makes these types of inexcusable factual and conceptual errors, and as a result paints an inaccurate and deceptive picture of languages and linguistics in general. For this reason, I take issue with the reviewers who say that what matters is that the book is entertaining negates its errors. On the contrary, the entire point of the book is to tell the story of the English language, and Bryson, as a good writer who knows how to inject good humor into his work, makes it funny. But a the true purpose remains to educate people, and it fails miserably in this respect, and as a result, it fails as a whole. Adding humor cannot make a bad book into a good one.The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way Overview

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