(Posted by Evan)
The main point in Chapter 9, Good English and Bad, is the lack of central authority for the English language, like the Académie Française for French.
Bryson says we have less verb inflections but use words in amore flexible way. I see this as kind of semantic as "used to drive", "will drive", "would drive" could be considered the verb inflections, just involving two words. He attributes most of the wackiness to imposing Latin grammar on a non-Latin language. So if we don't have an authority on our language why do we have to learn rules in school. Apparently, amateur grammarians were taken as authorities by some people and the rule propagates.
Queen Stefanya adds this little nugget:
Lastly, dictionaries do not save as authorities either, and some even take the descriptive view of explaining how things are used instead of the prescriptive view of explaining how it should be used. This all reminds me of what the guru N. N. Taleb calls "Teaching birds to fly." The idea being that people just do things, and then academic types (such as myself) figure out how they did it and explain it to them, usually without request.
This takes us nicely in to Chapter 10, Order out of Chaos, which is mainly devoted to dictionaries of English and how they came about. Bryson takes us through the difficult things to consider in making a dictionary by first considering the number of words. Could a dictionary ever be able to encapsulate them all? No. Even the more limited consideration of words in people's vocabulary is unclear. Estimates abound.
I think it is really something that our memories can work in this manner. Relying heavily on a small cluster of words and then be able to bring in more exotic terms that we may not have used in a long time. I've noticed in my writing that if I do that I have a tendency to want to use the same words again soon after.
Next, how do we define words? Can we capture every nuanced meaning for a word in a single dictionary? No. Lastly, by the time you are done you have to start over because language is always changing. Still, I have to admire people like Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and James Augustus Henry Murray for trying. I have a strong desire to be comprehensive, flawless and exhaustive in all subjects, even as I secretly concede that it's impossible to be any of the three usually. Strive for perfection, you'll fall short into something pretty damn good. On the other hand, you may end up like W. C. Minor who kept himself institutionalized all his life and also CUT OFF HIS OWN PENIS WITH A PEN KNIFE!!! Accept your flaws is a good mantra too.
To show you how thrilling this book is, here is basically The Mother Tongue version of the photo album of classic cars mentioned in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice:
Speaking of which, I have a website now, so here's those classic cars. Hubba hubba!
Chapter 11, Old World, New World. The American English language takes it's root at a particular time in the transient development of English English. It borrows words from Dutch, Spanish, and French colonials as well as Native tribes. The latter in particular are often converted into more palatable spellings and pronunciations such as raugraoughchun into raccoon.
The origin of O.K. is unknown, huh? I had once heard that it meant "zero kills" and was coined during the Mexican-American War. However, the first print version in 1839 predates this. Still works for zero kills though. Also interesting is that certain Appalachian folks speak a similar version of English as Elizabethan England, and that Southern dialect words (consarn it) are closer to hoity-toity English. This reflects the role of social motility, with dialects being preserved in geographically isolated regions such as these, or in culturally isolated communities such as the Pennsylvania Dutch (who preserve their non-Dutch German language to some degree).
Shout out to The King's English (1931). It's a 'modern usage' book. I didn't get that from reading.
I meant this one of course. It's a quaint little book store. Not a great book store. But it's right along my bus route.
In Chapter 12, English as a Global Language, Bryson makes the case that English is a global language. He estimates that about a billion (American billion) people speak English as either a first or second language (back in 1990). The fact that they do this not because they think its the most awesomest language but because they know it is the most important testifies to me that English has become the official international language of the world. English words are incorporated into many languages including Serb-Croation. The Japanese do it the most, and the French, of course are the most resistant.
It may seem trivial but it is kind of important point to remember that first language - foreign, second language - English speakers prefer they're own language to English. The fact that they prefer to read and watch TV in their native language speaks to that, and seems obvious, although I wonder about music. American pop music is all the rage across the world, is it not? In any case, one lesson I learned from traveling in Europe is that although almost everyone there speaks English, they will find it rude if you assume they do. Learn how to politely ask "Excuse me, do you speak English?" in the native tongue and it will get you a long way.
Making up a language is ambitious, crazy... and ambitious. I wonder if the inventors of Volapük or Esperanto had any friends. I mean, speaking one of those languages is geekier than speaking Klingon or whatever Middle Earthers speak. At least those movies/shows/books were cool, so there's some excuse for geeking out. But a language out of the blue, for the sake of it? That's a little cultish.