If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien

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If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: For linguistic ladies and grammar gents, this is a book that goes deeper into the structure, source and history of English than most popular language books do. Damian O'Brien popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 140 Date: November 2012
Publisher: New Generation Publishing
ISBN: 978-1909395596

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I once dedicated an entire linguistics essay to the plural of sheep, in particular my older sister’s youthful fascination with it all. One sheep, two sheep. No two sheeps. That silly etc etc. So when this book arrived I thought it perfectly plausible that the author had written an extended investigation into house/houses, mouse/mice. (No two mouses? That silly.) What I discovered on making my way through the pages, however, is that there is a lot more to this book that irregular plurals of the 3-year-old-befuddling kind.

This is a book written by someone who loves languages, for people who love languages. As a child, the highlight of my trip to Austria was the persistent presence of Gute Fahrt signs by the side of the road, something that the author fondly reminisces about too. If he’s looking for a trade, I’ll take his anus (Latin for old lady, he tells us) in exchange for the interesting Mexican-learning-English pronunciation of focus which is delightfully if unintentionally rude. Then take the fun snippet early on that in Ancient Greek, there was likely not a single verb of motion that didn’t also mean to make Shakespeare’s beast with two backs. That’s a good ‘un. Some of the entries are less likely to become dinner party anecdotes, but they are interesting nonetheless.

English is often believed to be an irregular language, and for the large part this book focuses on that irregularity, seeing what can be explained by etymology and what cannot. I studied linguistics to Masters level, and I’ve taught English as a foreign language, but it’s a wide ranging subject and that means there are many aspects I’ve never stopped to think about or taken the time to investigate until now. This book came in handy, then, to explain why auxiliaries don’t inflect in the same way other verbs do (I cook, she cooks, but I can cook, she can cook), and why some main verbs are irregular – teach becoming taught and so on. In other words, it’s a book which teached me a lot.

The chapters are short, and there are lots of them, all with provocative names:

Kings and genitals
Fate, phones and baldness
Hell and eucalyptus trees
The small difference between president and prostitute

My favourite was about how Oxford is in Turkey. You mean you didn’t know? If we’re back on trading titbits, I’ll volunteer my own here – that Blackpool is in Ireland, if you look hard enough.

O’Brien is not shy in his opinions of others, including Bill Bryson and Dan Brown, but while his words on the former may seem a little harsh, I think they make the point that there is a vast market for books about language, which allow works such as Bryson’s, and works such as O’Brien’s to co-exist, in a mostly peaceful manner. If Houses is aimed at a much more cerebral audience, one not flustered in the least by expressions such as Ingvaeonic nasal-spirant law or internecine noble-nobbling. While it is quite a formal read, there are wonderful moments that slip away from this, to show the author’s personality a little: A lord is someone who looks after the baps, a keeper of the crumpet, a muffin master, providing security to scones and protection to pancakes.

This is quite a niche book. For the amateur linguist it may be a bit much, but for those who have already been wooed by words, this is the sort of read that takes you to the next level. It's not the easiest read - without being crude, you wouldn't stash it in the bathroom - and it does require concentration, but if you keep with it there are some very interesting insights scattered across the pages.

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.

If this sounds a little serious, or you want to ease your way into the field, The Story of English by Joseph Piercy or The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth would do nicely.

You can read more about Damian O'Brien here.

Bookinterviews.jpg Damian O'Brien was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

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Buy If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien at Amazon.com.


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