Monday, January 23, 2012

Mother Tongue

The book I'm reading now, "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson, is all about the evolution of the English language. It's an interesting read. Bryson tracks the roots of English, the origins of certain interesting words, the reasons American spelling is different from British spelling, the sources of our grammar and sentence structure, and other subjects.

For example, the term "O.K." I've long had a vague idea that it came from the military, and relatively recently. But Bryson said its earliest usage in print was March 1839, in a Boston newspaper. Apparently some young people at the time thought it funny to use "intentional illiteracies," and O.K. may stand for "Oll Korrect." I had no idea.

He also makes the point that some of our rules of grammar really make no sense. For example, we have rules against split infinitives, and against ending a sentence with a preposition. Apparently these are rather groundless prohibitions that serve no useful function. We prohibit split infinitives because they are prohibited in Latin, and an early grammarian simply thought ending sentences with a preposition sounded bad.

I've never really stopped to think about our rules for usage, grammar and spelling -- I've merely adopted them, as most of us do. I've long been aware that English is a growing, changing language, but who knew it was so arbitrary?

Dave and I went to see "Shame" yesterday. It's a powerful movie, and an interesting examination of the excesses of misplaced desire, but I can't say I loved it. It's almost painfully slow in places -- and this is coming from someone who normally likes slow, cerebral movies.

Otherwise, we had a very quiet weekend. We've spent a lot of money over the past few weeks -- a new rug for the living room, numerous restaurant meals and movies, my photography classes, airplane tickets for Amsterdam and my visit to Florida late next month. It's time to pare back for a while!

(Photos: Top, an Instagram image of some sidewalk scaffolding near our flat. Bottom, the same scene taken with my camera a few minutes later, after the red car had parked.)


  1. The book sounds great. Will put it on the ipad asap. I haven't read his travel books, but as you know, his brief history of almost everything is one of my sacred texts, revealing the mysteries in an accessible, exciting way.

    Many rules are arbitrary. Then there's the rule of the budget, which is quite concrete! Sometimes I love the excuse to stay home, cook, and veg out. The bottom line is a great excuse!

  2. I really like Bryson, and that book sounds fascinating. As for prepositions at the end of sentences -- I love what you discovered. I've felt that it's uncomfortably difficult to follow that "rule." I'm glad that I can, perhaps, forget about it.

  3. As a teacher of English to students (very small students, Kinder & 1st) of other languages I sometimes want to bang my head against the wall when I teaching the rules of our wonderful and ever growing language. I love English, but sometimes I just have to stop and say...
    "Now why on Earth would they spell it in that way? More importantly how will I explain it to these kids?"

    However, I do always find it fascinating to find the origins of words.

    Ms. M
    Ms.M's Blog
    A Teacher's Plan

  4. Well, I'm going to totally quite worrying about prepositions! Actually, I already stopped worrying, but this gives me more ammunition for naysayers. Ha!

  5. During my many changes in universities I focused on English Lit and Grammar consistently, took an advanced grammar class one time and became a blubbering snobby idiot- it was OCD, extreme! None of it made sense at all but was taken VERY seriously! Terrible. My mother was also a stickler for proper grammar- would not hesitate to correct us during the most embarrassing social moments. I find myself doing the same thing- obnoxious! When I break the rules of grammar I actually feel nauseous. I am trying to get over it-desensitized- tried to listen to country western music....ow ow ow- on so many levels!

  6. I think I would like the Bryson book because I am fascinated by grammar. Like you, I simply bought into the rules without a whole lot of thought as to whether they really made sense. Love the origin of OK.

    I think Florida is going to seem pretty boring after the life you are leading in the UK!