Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson

I've been somewhat on a nonfiction kick recently, which is why I picked up Bill Bryson's Made in America, an "informal history" of the development of American English.  I've always had a kind of lazyman's interest in linguistics--while I think it's interesting to learn where terms like "jaywalking" came from, I do not want to learn the phoenetic alphabet or memorize the dates of the vowel or consonant shifts.

Therefore, the first half of Made in America was a pretty interesting read, tracking how the pilgrims stole shamelessly from the Native Americans, how unstable the English language was at the time of the Founding Fathers, all the way through the influx of languages brought with all of the immigrants throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Bryson has a pretty sharp wit and a wry attitude that was particularly entertaining when contrasted with the History Channel version of events we normally get.

The book unfortunately slowed down about halfway through, with Bryson focusing each chapter on a specific aspect of American life.  I lost interest about ten pages into the chapter on the development of the highway system and automobiles, and although the last chapter sounded promising (being all about American mores and language surrounding sex), I'd lost interest in the book.

I guess my advice would be to only try to read the chapters in which you have a particular interest, and then this book will be absolutely fascinating.

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