Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Mother Tongue by Bryson

History Book Club
The History of Languages
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Wednesday, June 27, 2018: The History of Languages. Can you understand the English spoken by Chaucer? [WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote; The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,]  Choose any language and learn how it grew from its ancient roots, how it absorbed other languages, how it spread, and its variations in use in the world today. Did you know that only one in 40 Italians spoke Italian in 1861?  What language is most widely spoken in the world today? How are languages changing in modern times? *[Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]


Bryson, Bill, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.

            Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, IA in 1951. He attended Drake University but dropped out after two years and went backpacking in Europe. He got a job at a psychiatric hospital in England, where he met a nurse there. They married and returned to Des Moines, where he completed his bachelor’s degree at Drake. Then the couple returned to England where they have lived since.  He has written several books, worked as a journalist and educator.

            Bryson starts his story of the English language with the Cro-Magnons and their cave drawings, then came the Basques and their language Euskara, which pre-dates the Neolithic languages spoken in Stone Age Europe.

            Those were the days of the Indo-Europeans, but Bryson suggests that there may never have been such a language. At any rate, it branched into Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Slavonic and Thraco-Illyrian, which further branched to Latin, Faroese, Parthian, Armenian, Hindi, Lithuanian, Sanskrit and Portuguese.

            From the Germanic branch came English, Frisian, Flemish, and Dutch. He devotes a chapter to the First Thousand Years, which I think is the heart of the story of the English language.

            Today in Schleswig-Holstein, where Germany connects to Denmark, even today you can hear people talking in what sounds like a lost dialect of English. “Veather ist cold” and “What ist de clock?” According to a professor of German at nearby Kiel University, this is very close to the way people spoke in Britain 1000 years ago. This area of Germany, called Angeln, was once the home of the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes who crossed the North Sea to displace the native Celts.

            Nearby, in marshy northern Holland and western Germany live a group whose dialect is even more closely related to English. These are the Frisians.  In about 450 A.D., following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain, these Angles and Frisians, as well as Saxons and Jutes, began an exodus to England. They dominated most of the British Isles, except for Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, which remained Celtic strongholds.

            Although the new nation was dominated by the Saxons, it became known as England, after the Angles. These early tribes were functionally illiterate, so there is no written account of this period.

            It must have been a blow to the Celts, overrun by primitive, unlettered warriors, because they were far more literate, sophisticated people.

            For the next several centuries, what was to become the English language grew, swallowing up Celtic, Angle, Saxon languages, and then adding Norman, and French… then discarding loads of words, but steadily adding Latin, French and Scandinavian words. Shakespeare came along and single-handedly added thousands of words, like: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, and many more.  Other bright lights of England, like Ben Jonson, Thomas More and Isaac Newton, added more.

            At this point Bryson notes how many languages have similar words, like bruder in German, biradar in Farsi, bhrata in Sanskrit, bhrathair in Gaelic, all meaning brother in English.

            Over 300 million people speak English in some fashion, and it seems as if all the rest of the world wish they spoke English. English has invaded other languages mercilessly.  For years the French resisted introduction of English words into their language, but no more.  There are more students of English in China than there are people in the United States.

            English is richer in vocabulary –the Oxford English Dictionary lists 650,000 words. English speakers have 200,000 words in common use; German, 184,000 and French 100,000.

            English is more flexible than other popular languages.  It is not so rigid in word ordering.

            And, English is comparatively simple to spell.  There are fewer consonantal clusters, singsong tonal variations and it is generally free of gender.

            Germans talk about ein image problem or das Cash Flow, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, Japanese spread a blanket and have a pikunikku, drink kohi (coffee) or miruku (milk), speak through a maiku (microphone), shop in a depaato (department store), and put on meeku (make-up). Poles watch telewizja and French shop at le drugstore.

            Some Americans today bemoan the fact that English is becoming extinct, in danger of being crowded out by millions who speak Spanish, or Chinese. They have sought to enact legislation declaring English the official language of the U.S.A.

            Bryson warns that the danger of another language crowding out English is not the real problem.  More and more Americans show that they are unable to grow a useful vocabulary, use educated grammar and spelling, or express themselves intelligently.   If you use Facebook or other such social media, note when a popular topic comes up for wide discussion  and many chime in the comment: How many comments reflect a low level of fluency in what must be the native language of people?
            Author Bryson ends his book with his greatest worry about the future of English…not that the various strands will drift apart, but that they will grow indistinguishable.  What a sad loss that would be.


Old World Language Family Tree


* MORE HINTS: The languages of Africa are divided into six major language families: Afroasiatic languages are spread throughout Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel. Austronesian languages are spoken in Madagascar.

North American languages include those spoken in Canada and the United States while those of Mexico belong to Meso-America. When the Europeans came to North America there were perhaps 300 to 400 languages spoken by several million native people.



Wednesday, July 25, 2018:  Immigration to America. How did we all get here?  Read about the history of immigration, at any stage – from first settlers to the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; victims of the Irish Potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Europeans suffering poverty in their countries, Africans brought here as slaves, Chinese brought here to build railroads; Fugitives of war everywhere; Mexicans and Central Americans coming to pick crops. Read about immigration policies and national drives to keep out or encourage immigration. [Suggested by Walt Frederick.]

Joe McCarthy

Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  Fighting the U.S. Constitution.  Times and events when the Americans and even Presidents went against the freedoms in our Constitution. E, g, Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Indian Removal Act under Jackson, Mexican American War, suspension of Habeas Corpus under Lincoln, Red Scare in 1920, McCarthyism in 1950’s, and Patriot Act 2001.  [Suggested by William Tobin]

Wednesday, September 26:  Religion and Politics in America. Religious impact in American political events. E.g.: Puritan Exceptionalism, justification of Slavery through the Bible, Abolition Movement, treatment of Native American Christianization movement, Justification of Imperialism’s Christianization mission. [Suggested by William Tobin]

Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment (Afro-American) at Fort Wagner, SC
Wednesday, October 24, 2018.  (vice Oct. 31):  African American Warriors and their place in American History. From the American Revolution, during the Civil War to Korean War. E.g.: Contraband to Massachusetts 54th, Buffalo Soldiers and Native American Wars, Spanish American War and Truth about Battle of San Juan Hill, World War I and use of African American soldiers with French combat troops, World War II and Segregated all African American combat units: Armor, Transport, Tuskegee Airmen, Desegregation and Korean War.  [Suggested by William Tobin]

Wednesday, November 28, 2018: Guns in American History. E.g. American Revolution and the Minutemen; Going West with new technology: six guns, repeating rifles, Twentieth Century automatic weapons after World War I, : pistols, rifles, Tommy guns, The St. Valentine’s Massacres of 1929 and 2018. Control vs. freedom of gun use. and Machine Gun laws, mass shootings in America: rifles, pistols, military style weapons, Guns laws in 21st century America. [Suggested by William Tobin]

December 2018: No meeting.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019: Horses in History. The clattering of hooves pierced the dark stillness of the Austrian night. It is the fall of 1855. The gilded Ambruster Dress Carriage, a beautiful vehicle trimmed in glimmering black paint and shiny gold leaf showed that Emperor Franz Joseph was arriving. Read any book about horses, from Caligula to Triple Crown, from Richard III to Pony Express, from mythology (Pegasus) to literature (Arabian Nights) or music (Von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture), from battle tactics (Genghis Kahn, Templars, conquistadors, light cavalry of Napoleon) to transportation and military logistics, from money making business of breeding to prestige and rivalry of kings and sheikhs, from fundamental needs in agriculture to the vanity of Derby fashion. [Suggested by Janos Posfai]