The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

I bought this one many years ago. Now I finally have time to read it and make some notes. I only knew Chinese, Japanese and English, and a little Italian and Russian before, so when I read many comparison examples of French and German vocabulary and grammar, it was quite hard to verify by my own. Now I can take memo and verify that many of them actually make no sense. People study languages tend to have the bias and make a short comparison with their little understanding.

As a native Chinese speaker who knows Japanese pretty well, and apparently has a better knowledge of French than the author does, I can firmly say that that he is also wrong about those languages in many ways. Some examples as follows.

  1. He said that French doesn’t have the word for separating “home” from “house”. Wrong. French uses “maison” to mean “house” and “chez” or “domicile” to mean “home”.
  2. He said that French grammar cannot tell the differences between “I wrote”, “I have written”, “I do write” & “I am writing”, but French does have their ways to express the same idea, e.g.,《J’ai écrit》, 《J’écrivais》, 《Je bien écris》, 《Je suis en train de écrire》… and more!!!
  3. He said that some other languages such as German can function like English, changing the part of speech of a word, but it’s rare, not as much as English. No need to mention that Chinese is more flexible for the part of speech… we change the part of speech so without changing the character/case at all!
  4. Japanese “外国人” also means “the stinking of foreign hair”??? NO SUCH A THING! I believe the author meant to say the word “外人”. However, the word only shows “discrimination to the outsider”. It’s nothing to do with the smell!
  5. In Chinese, we use tone to understand separate the same phoneme. It’s not that hard to understand a word with the same phoneme. Not to mention it’s the same in English, it can be various in meaning for one sound too. It’s not just Chinese.
  6. He said that the “er” sound of the words “hear”, “birth”, “hurt” and “worse” exclusively exists in English. Wrong. In Chinese, we pronunciate 而、兒 in exactly “er”!
  7. “It’s easy for Chinese people to understand the scripts of 2500 years ago”. It’s all nonsense. Classical Chinese is quite different from Modern Chinese in words, characters, grammar and meaning. BTW, Classical Japanese is also difficult to understand for modern Japanese people.
  8. “The character of Chinese hasn’t changed since thousand years ago.” Does the author know anything about “Oracle”? or even “Kangxi Dictionary”??? There are so many written system in Chinese. Not to mention, PRC made Simplified Chinese characters based on “easier characters used by rural people in different places”, which proves that there are different ways to write a same word. Also, Chinese people “misspell/mis-write” words and then create a lot different style to write.
  9. and more.

So many things the author wrote is nonsense without solid evidence and reference. Although I did learn some history and words of English from the book, but generally, he makes me hard to believe the things he said about other Language, even English! 


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