(Posted by Evan)
Author Bio: (From Wikipedia) "William McGuire Bryson (born 8 December 1951) is an American-British author of books on travel, the English language, science, and other non-fiction topics…
Bryson was born [in 1951] in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of Agnes Mary (née McGuire) and sports journalist Bill Bryson Sr…. In 2006 Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.
Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high-school friend, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz). Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from this trip in his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.
Bryson first visited Britain in 1973 during his tour of Europe and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, whom he married in 1975. They moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1975 so that Bryson could complete his college degree at Drake University. In 1977 they settled in Britain… and now holds dual citizenship."
(From penguin books,)
"In a national poll, Notes from a Small Island was voted the book that best represents Britain. His acclaimed work of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Aventis Prize and the Descartes Prize, and was the biggest selling non-fiction book of its decade in the UK.
His new book The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an extraordinary exploration of the human body which will have you marvelling at the form you occupy. Bill Bryson was Chancellor of Durham University 2005–2011. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He lives in England."
(From Durham University)
"Bill Bryson was Durham University's 11th Chancellor, and formal head of the University, from April 2005 to 31st December 2011…
In 2004 he returned to Durham to receive an honorary Doctor of Civil Law. In 2006, Bill was awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2009, was the first American to be made an honorary freeman of the City of Durham.
A high profile international figure, Bill is not only famous for his books; he is also actively involved in promoting cultural, environmental and scientific issues. In 2002, he travelled to Kenya with CARE International, an independent humanitarian organisation working to end world poverty through sustainable development programmes. In 2003, Bill was appointed as a Commissioner for English Heritage, and in 2005 he launched a call to improve the protection of Britain’s ancient trees and woods alongside The Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum."
I think Bill Bryson is funny. In researching his bio I came across this interview titled: Bill Bryson interview "I enjoy the preposterousness of life" So do I, Bill, so do I. This opening passage had me going pretty good.
(p.2) Consider this ... warning to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor."
In the interview, Bryson says he felt pressure to be comical in his early books and that mainly took the form making fun of people. I found these slurs (that's what they are) on the Irish pretty comical.
(p.9) An Irish buggy was a wheelbarrow. An Irish beauty was a woman with two black eyes. Irish confetti was bricks. An Irish promotion was a demotion.
In Chapter 2, Bryson tells us about the development of Neanderthal Man and Homo Sapiens. I didn’t know we were the only mammals that could choke on food. The implications for articulate speech go a long way to explaining my cats’ limited vocabularies.
We are provided with a two-sides theory of the development of language shown through the lens of childhood language development. a) the blank slate that learns what it experiences; b) an innate ability to learn language. Nature vs. Nurture (or vice versa rather, respectively). The evidence provided by Bryson seems to favor Nature, but doesn’t attempt to be decisive. He talks about how historically, different languages developed at the same time and how children all seem to learn language in the same way and on the same time scales. He points out what would be very strange coincidences between distant languages such as Sanskrit and English, hinting that some cognates may be universal originating from onomatopoeia. Personally, I am skeptical about the existence of a Proto-Indo-European mother tongue.
Oh and this sentence about Sanskrit on page 22, "That so much of it survived at all was in large part due to the efforts of priests who memorized its sacred hymns, the Vedas, and passed them on from one generation to the next for hundreds of years even though the words had no meaning for them." makes me think of Djinn in Salamander by Thomas Wharton, getting an ancient language tattooed on his body, the living scroll.
In a book that Andy recommended, Probably Approximately Correct by Leslie Valiant, a book about ‘machine learning’ mostly, he argues that evolutionary learning is not fundamentally different from conventional learning of a single organism through experience and offers this as an explanation as to why it is difficult to distinguish Nature from Nurture. Through evolution we have learned through our genes, our genetic memory, while through experience we have learned through normal memory. It’s a neat idea. Bryson points out many times that one distinct characteristic of English is it's flexibility. So maybe an evolutionary theory is appropriate.
This book was published in 1990. I wonder how much our knowledge of these things has changed since then.
Chapter 3 on the other hand shows us how different languages can be. “It appears there is no feature of grammar or syntax that is indispensable or universal.” (p.29) The way that culture and environment influence language is seen in the 50 words for snow of the Eskimos. As Bryson points out, languages change over time, they mix with other languages, and they die out. They can be generated through the development of pidgins and then creoles to full-fledged languages. I didn’t know that a creole was type of language. I always thought Creole was a language in Louisiana and some of the Caribbean nations. I had never heard of a pidgin.
But I thought Bryson could have done a better job of describing how these classes of languages are distinct. I just gather that a language is superior to a creole and a creole is superior to a pidgin.
Chapter 4 is the start of the real book, how the English language began. I found this chapter fascinating. I wasn’t aware that English was historically Germanic. I always thought of it as a mix of European languages, but rooted in Latin. This seems to be Bryson’s point about the rules of Latin being arbitrarily imposed upon English being one of its peculiarities.
Poor Celts. Sounds like they had a good thing going. Then those barbarian Anglo-Saxon-Frisian-Jutes invaded and ruined everything. But it’s interesting how the crass and uncultured English survived because it was so. Bryson points out how the Romans and Celts left little in the way of vocabulary beyond the names of places in the English Language. This is later made more explicit when he describes how the Anglo-Norman occupation provided a lot of terms related to government and high-class professional crafts, while English maintained authority over the language of love and dirt. One of my favorite parts of the book so far was the remaining 1% of modern English attributable to pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon English containing all the best words:
(p.57) ... man, wife, child, brother, sister, live, fight, love, drink, sleep, eat, house and so on.
Language is a major class signifier, and has major implications for politics, but it goes both ways. The Anglo-Normans were able to rule over the English with their imposition of government official language but the language dissolved because it was too haughty for the populace and still looked down upon by Parisians. I hear that the Parisians also mock the Quebecois, and yet the latter are still proud of their language and still call it French.
A similar dynamic occurs in professional communities. Jargon can be used to exclude lay people from knowing what a doctor, lawyer, or scientist are up to. But within the field, if you use a lot of jargon people will think you are an idiot.
You made it to the end. You deserve a treat.