40 pages 1 hour read

Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way is a 1990 work of nonfiction by American-British author Bill Bryson. The book is structured as a straightforward chapter-by-chapter examination of the origins, history, and future of the English language. Bryson blends humor with historical research and linguistics to examine many of the peculiarities of English dialects, pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and syntax. He establishes three themes throughout the book: the role of English in the world, the history of English, and the evolution of language. Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa and educated at Drake University before settling with his wife in England in 1977. A holder of dual American and British citizenship, Bryson has authored numerous books on travel, Americana, British culture, and the English language.

This guide is based on the book’s first edition published by William Morrow and Company.


Bill Bryson begins The Mother Tongue with a brief examination of the role that English plays in the contemporary world, providing plenty of evidence that English has become a global language for business, education, science, politics, and culture. He then traces back to the dawn of language itself and explains the slight evolutionary change in humans that made speech possible and the mysterious way in which languages developed among isolated groups at roughly the same time. Early languages blended, merged, and changed because of human migration and eventually fractured into a dozen language groups before subdividing into many new languages. The complex origins of English in Britain can be traced back to a series of invasions and occupations of the island that became the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Beginning with the Celts living under the rule of the Roman Empire, English blended with the Germanic dialects of invading Anglo-Saxons, blended again with the Old Norse of invading Scandinavian Vikings, and finally blended with the French dialect of invading Normans in 1066.

The middle chapters of The Mother Tongue focus on how English functions by examining the formation of words, dialects, pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and syntax. Bryson also gives considerable attention to English language lexicography, detailing landmark dictionary projects and the unique relationship between American and British English. One of the aspects that sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary, which is owed in large part to its multiplicity of synonyms for nearly every word. English words are formed in any one of five ways: They can be created by error (typically from a typographical error or mishearing), adopted from other languages, actively created, change in meaning, or emerge anew by adding or subtracting a prefix or suffix. Because English possesses more sounds than most languages and pronounces many words in ways unintuitive to their spelling, it can be confusing to grasp and lead to a variety of pronunciations for the same word. Throughout much of the history of English, spelling varied a great deal and little attention was given to it, but spelling became standardized with the invention of the printing press.

English grammar is equally complex and confusing due to the fact that its rules are based on Latin. Over the centuries, there have been many calls for the formation of a national academy to oversee and regulate English usage, but any attempts of reform have generally failed to create lasting changes. Rather, English has continued as a democratic fluid language which changes in response to common usage. For centuries, conventions of word usage have been left to lexicographers and their dictionaries, but because English is constantly changing as new words are introduced, these dictionaries require continual updating. The transformative nature of English is exemplified in the changes that occurred when the language moved from Britain to North America. When the pilgrims arrived in North America, they not only coined new words to describe the New World but also adopted many words used by Native Americans. In addition to a newly developed American accent of English, a traffic of words developed between the Old Word and New World.

In the final group of chapters, Bryson circles back and examines the contemporary and future role of English as a world language, while also taking a lighthearted look at the curious naming traditions of English, the use of swear words, and even English word games. English has become the most studied and emulated language in the world not because of its intrinsic appeal but rather out of necessity. For more than a century, various movements to devise a neutral, artificial world language have come up but none became widespread. Others have suggested that English become simplified and more accessible in order to be treated as a true world language. While English has become widespread across the globe, many have suspected that the dialects of English-speaking nations will drift further apart—but Bryson takes the opposite view in large part to the influence of mass media.