Global Mother Tongue: The Eight Flavours Of English
Probably best known for his Gazette column, “Speaking of Language,” Montreal writer Richler must have a hollow leg for words, as Global Mother Tongue is his fourth book on the topic. Here, through the lens of etymology, he continues to observe some of English’s idiosyncrasies while considering the factors transforming this highly absorbent language. Mostly, he explores how English has adopted and continues to adopt so much of its vocabulary from other languages, and muses over why it has indeed become so global.
Richler whets our appetites with a platter of factual hors d’oeuvres, informing us, for instance, that while English has accumulated by far the largest vocabulary in the world (more than double the size of German, French, or Russian, the next largest), studies show that no more than 30% of English words derive from the original Anglo-Saxon stock. He suggests that this may be at least partly due to the fact that, of all the European languages, English is the only one without an Academy to preserve its “purity.” Contrary to French, for instance, whose linguistic boundaries are guarded by L’Office de la langue française in Quebec and L’Académie française in France, English has a more free-for-all approach, gleefully collecting words like notches on a bedpost. And English has a voracious appetite, unabashedly sponging off any language it fancies. “The nice thing about this kind of larceny,” Richler specifies, “is that it enriches the borrower without impoverishing the lender.”
So convinced is he of the benefits of sponging that Richler recommends this tactic to the French, arguing quite persuasively that anglicisms have actually strengthened their language by expanding their vocabulary. Though a tad cheeky (since my background is steeped in French culture, my guard admittedly went up on occasion), he isn’t completely insensitive to the underlying causes that lead to the fear of linguistic invasion. Richler reminds us that if the English never feared an invasion of foreign words, it’s because they never feared being invaded. While it’s true that the Normans invaded England in 1066, making French the language of power until 1360, Richler maintained that the modern concept of a nation had not yet been formed: “Matters were dictated primarily by no more than the concept of different classes.”
While certain sections of the book read too much like lists, and there is some unnecessary repetition, for the most part Richler provides fun reading. He spices his text with humour, serving up bite-sized bits of history in a light and easily digested tone. His etymological references are particularly effective when paired up with amusing anecdotes. Perhaps because he’s a native Montrealer, Richler best achieves this in chapters such as “English is Poorly Pronounced French,” where his first-hand knowledge of the cultural implications of mixing these two languages makes for better storytelling.
Overall, Global Mother Tongue provides a good synopsis of English’s roots, with sections devoted to each language that helped develop its various “flavours.” The reader closes the book with a renewed appreciation for this unique language’s adaptability and inherent cultural diversity, better recognizing its ability to rock’n’ roll with the punches of change. There is something cool – and naturally attractive – about anything so free and alive; teeming with life force and transformative twists, English is maybe even a little…avant-garde? mRb