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Mother Tongue

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I really did not finish the book.  It was not all what I expected.  The historical background went into too much detail.  I lost interest.  Sorry!
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It would be really easy to make a book feminist linguistics dry and boring. Jenni Nuttall certainly did not do that. 

Reading Mother Tongue gave me the same feeling is nerding out with my best friend over history and beers- interesting, funny, relatable, and something I didn’t want to walk away from. I was highly impressed with the wealth of knowledge Nuttall incorporated into this book, as she connected the history of words related to women with a huge array of written works from the past 2000 years. Then, she skillfully connected them to present-day language and issues facing women. The book brilliantly balanced academic writing with jokes to lighten the tone, making it much more bearable than so many history books I’ve read in the past. I highly recommend for anyone that is interested in history, linguistics, or feminism!
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An endlessly fascinating topic for anyone interested in language and how we choose to shape and use it to fit our own biases and values. The gender studies lens to explore language is not new, but Nuttall makes it more accessible here for lay readers.

I do wish there had been more deeper diving in some areas, but I appreciate that the book also needs to meet the needs of a wider, more general readership.

I look forward to more related works from this author.
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Was expecting more of a history of language but got a history of sex and gender roles. Still interesting, just not quite what I was expecting or looking for.
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In Mother Tongue, Dr. Jenni Nuttall investigates how words relating to women have changed throughout history in English. She discusses terms as they are referenced in Old English and as they appear when borrowed from other languages. Many of the word choices are defined though they eyes of men and this can give words a certain connotation or make it difficult to talk about common subjects as the language doesn't quite capture the essence. Overall, an interesting look at how language can shape the way one thinks about a subject and also how words are created with intent. The structure of the book can be hard to follow at times, as it meanders through a topic and seems to go off on tangents from the original premise. Some parts of the book were better read as interesting factoids rather than as an in-depth analysis of the evolution of terms.
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Book Reviews: Summer 2023
Pennsylvania Literary Journal
By: Anna Faktorovich

Non-Linear Digressions on Gendered Modern English Etymology
Jenni Nuttall, Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words (New York: Penguin Group: Viking, August 29, 2023). 304pp. ISBN: 978-0-593299-57-9.
A “linguistic journey through a thousand years of feminist language—and what we can learn from the vivid vocabulary that English once had for women’s bodies, experiences, and sexuality. So many of the words that we use to chronicle women’s lives feel awkward or alien. Medical terms are scrupulously accurate but antiseptic. Slang and obscenities have shock value, yet they perpetuate taboos. Where are the plain, honest words for women’s daily lives?” This “is a historical investigation of feminist language and thought, from the dawn of Old English to the present day.” A guide “through the evolution of words that we have used to describe female bodies, menstruation, women’s sexuality, the consequences of male violence, childbirth, women’s paid and unpaid work, and gender… Examining the long-forgotten words once used in English for female sexual and reproductive organs. Nuttall also tells the story of words like womb and breast, whose meanings have changed over time, as well as how anatomical words such as hysteria and hysterical came to have such loaded legacies.”
My BRRAM series includes the first Old English diction in my modern translation of Verstegan’s Restitution for Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities (1605). There is no Index yet in this galley edition, and there is no search option for me to check if Verstegan is ever mentioned. Surprisingly, Verstegan is mentioned in the “Introduction” (but without a citation for my translation in the “Notes”), where she uses him as an example of sexist language as his definition for “woman” indicates a “womb-man”. Because Verstegan basically forged or invented the definitions and etymologies for Old English before anybody else attempted decoding this language, and because he was instrumental in forming the Early Modern English language; if one of Verstegan’s definitions is sexist, then the term was meant to be sexist by its creator. Nuttall argues that “woman in truth comes from the Old English compound wifman, or woman-human; Nuttall does not quote the source of who first defined wif as woman, but she notes that scholars disagree on this point. She also claims the author typically gives answers regarding the derivation of Old English words from the top of her mind, and only occasionally looks up these origins. This suggests she probably puts little value in the origins of these dictionaries and how their derivations were developed. She mentions the Oxford English Dictionary in the following clarification as a main source; this dictionary’s etymology is an echo of generations of earlier etymological dictionaries, so it is likely to have many mistakes that have appeared through the ages. Verstegan’s etymology is heavily built from German, Dutch, Latin and other languages that he was familiar with that guided him in understanding united Old English/German roots. I offer a comparative set of etymologies from different sources, and support or negate Verstegan’s definitions across my translation of this dictionary and all of its words, so I would recommend for those interested in the full range of English derivations to read my own translation instead of this book. For example, Nuttall accepts the standard narrative that Old English arrived in England in the 400-500s, when my study explains that DNA studies have concluded that most of the current British population migrated to the islands in the 900s. The early migration theory comes from fictional narratives of “King Arthur” and the like that have been erroneously interpreted as history. 
 Instead of focusing on researching the actual origins and debates about specific words, most of this book is a feminist diatribe, as in: “Women’s paths through the world, whether they liked it or not, were predetermined and constricted because they had been selected for certain treatment on the basis of their particular reproductive anatomy” (21). The reason for widespread sexism across the Renaissance is because there were no female authors among the six male ghostwriters (as BRRAM illustrates), and texts assigned to female bylines like “Elizabeth I” or “Mary Sidney” were actually ghostwritten by men, who made it seem that women were approving of the sexist stereotypes that chained them from accessing an education. The continuation of the myth that women participated in this Early Modern English creation process is the real problem with understanding the roots of bias in this language. Instead, Nuttall is concerned with being called a “vulva-owner” (14). I personally don’t understand the problem with this usage, as it’s a biological fact that I own a vulva… Nuttall “solves” these mysteries by looking up Latin-derived terms like “labia” in the Oxford English Dictionary, which claims “vulva” originated in around 1400. During my translation I learned that checking online sources for terms tends to surface earlier (or even stranger only later) usages and occasionally their usage in other languages than what mainstream dictionaries tend to cite. The problem here is that Nuttall is to conversational, as she chats and asks questions, and only inserts a few etymological claims, without annotation numbers next to the claims to explain their origins, which suggests she is just using OED. Then, Nuttall refers to Aelfric’s Bible explainer from 1000, without acknowledging that Verstegan was implicated in some of the forgeries of Old English texts by translating Latin biblical works into Old English himself to claim their antique value in the book versions he published; this can mean that checking a term against Aelfric’s definition might again be a citation of Verstegan (most of these documents have never been scientifically dated). 
Nuttall’s text really needs sections and subsections to explain how her ideas are organized. For example, a section begins seemingly by attempting to figure out the roots of “the first English words for female reproductive anatomy”. There is a note that “English has some of the oldest medical guides written not in Latin, the common language of scholarship, but in the mother tongue” (19). The reason for this is because Verstegan forged some of these documents and backdated them; if there was no backdating going on, Britain should have similarly dated “oldest” documents in non-Latin or Vulgar Latin languages as the rest of Europe. Another sign of forgery is, as Nuttall notes, that a major “chapter 60 of Book II” is “now infuriatingly missing”, and it had promised to explain “forty-one cures for gynecological and obstetric problems”. Obviously, it was easier to not write a forgery of such an undertaking. Even if these documents are authentic and were not forged, Nuttall explains that they were unspecific and thus non-sexist as they referred to both male and female genitals as “gecynd”, including a generalist term -kind that Nuttall frequently returns to (20). Nuttall then digresses about the various other terms that have similar or multiple meanings. The discussion is generally scattered. This is a problem for any students or researchers who just want to see a specific full derivation with all sources an options listed together and compared for the different specific terms they might use in their common language, or might need to derive in their research. 
There is a great idea behind this book, but the author hasn’t begun organizing, re-framing, or truly archivally researching it to arrive at some new understanding of this rich but deeply misunderstood field. I do not recommend for the public or scholars to read this book, as it will deeply confuse them without enlightening them on what gendered English language means.
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This book deals with such an interesting topic. However, it is incredibly academic (perhaps necessarily) and I found it difficult to get through. I did skip ahead through some of the more dense bits. The best part for me was the linking between having words and the ability to live and express in the world. I would have liked a deeper dive into the recent evolution toward gender neutrality.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Penguin Group Viking for an advanced copy of this book on language and how word and definitions  have been changed or weakened dealing over the years as it pertains to woman. 

Words have power. Using words allow people to communicate, to share ideas, and to share what they are truly thinking. Words can also convey truth, which again aids in communication and helps people of shared ideas, shared lives and shared genders. When people control the language, they not only control the message, they make that message very hard to convey, mangling meaning, definition, even what the words are supposed to mean. Even in art, when say a group of people are uncomfortable with earthy language, words can be changed, their meaning lost, humor stripped away, and make future generations wonder what was so controversial about an author. Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words by Dr. Jenni Nuttall is a look at how the vocabulary for woman has changed over the decades, why, and what the future might hold for language. 

Dr. Nuttall begins with her reasons why she has chosen to write a book like this, mentioning her students and her child asking questions about words, their origins and how they words and meanings have adapted over the years, and how they have been changed, or even worse stricken from the language. Nuttall describes the idea of a mother tongue, language learned from the women around  a child, while Latin was considered the father tongue, for its importance in education and thought. The book is broken into nine chapters and an afterword, dealing with the language of medical ideas, sex, nursing and care, industry, aging and more. Nuttall traces the origins of words from Old English, Germanic roots, and how they came to be. Nuttall also looks at the various prudery of various ages, the Victorian and Edwardian eras especially where a lot of terms, became almost taboo, given a sense of impropriety that the language does not deserve. Another aspect is that the humor from a lot of works was removed, which enforces the belief that classic books are boring and staid.

A book that is really about much more than language. To see how many words, and ideas have been stripped of their feminine meaning is very surprising. Nor did I ever contemplate how this kind of control of language could make things difficult for women to convey. Especially sense so many words had practical origins, and practical meanings, especially dealing with health and sexual issues. Nuttall is a very good writer, able to discuss and share the etymology of words, while not making the reading seem like a lecture on paper. Also Nuttall is quite funny, and if one is not snorting a little during some of the chapters, well readers aren't reading to closely. More than a few words made me blush, but I could understand there inclusion, and reading it made me understand what could happen when words are made taboo, or not approved for polite conversation.  

A very interesting book for readers who enjoy words, and enjoy works about women and their lives. This would also be a very good book for writers, especially writers of historical fiction, to see how words have adapted, and if one wishes to write a shocking scene with language, this will give a writer much to work with.
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Covering the evolution of women’s words, this book examines how modern words about womanhood have changed or been warped over time. With nine chapters that examine the largest aspects of being a woman, readers are guided through Old English, Latin, and all Germanic roots to better understand how language can be influenced by more than just words. This book was overall very informative and I learned a lot. The chapters particularly on menstruation and jobs were enlightening as these areas seem to be two of the biggest that men have influenced. Throughout the whole book, the element of patriarchy and misogyny is applied to the growth of many words, and while you don’t see it with much thought, once reviewed, it is impossible to see how men haven’t influenced women’s words.

While there was a lot that I liked about this book, there were often when I felt the writing was inaccessible as the author often wrote out sentences in Old English. In many cases, Old English would be followed by the Modern English translation. Still, rather than it is helpful, I found this repetition to be disorienting (especially since it wasn’t done every time, I would often spend time trying to figure out the Old English only to realize then the Modern translation was/wasn’t there). This and the overall writing style further highlight (at least to me) that being a subject-matter expert does not mean you should be a writer. Additionally, I understand the author is British and this book focuses on the Germanic and Latin/Greek roots for many of these words, but I felt like something was missing as there was no mention of how non-European languages might have influenced or affected the growth of women’s words. This is just a note, nothing against the book as again, it is about Modern English.

I would say my largest issue came at the end of this book, and it could have just been the way I read it, however the final chapter and the “After Words” briefly mentioned the increased use/desire for gender-neutral language. This wasn’t explored very much and it felt dismissive to mostly ignore this linguistic change in modern language and society. As a non-binary individual, I would have appreciated the author’s expanded thoughts on this matter and, potentially more in the “After Words” about how this neutrality change affects language and the importance of pronouns/inclusive language.

That being said, I learned a lot from this book and did enjoy it a lot. There were some gaps and as an ARC, I assume the final product will be edited a bit more, but I’m grateful for the chance to read this book early.
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Mother Tongue is an informative, yet engagingly funny read.  For anyone who is curious about the history of the terms we employ in both professional and in inappropriate circles, the book does a fine job exploring both.  The chapters on childbirth and periods stood out to me as ones I learned the most about, and I chuckled the most at the first chapter on words involving genitals.  Hey, history doesn't have to be stuffy!  

What this book truly shows is just how much the idea of the feminine has been seen as exceptional.  In act and structure, separate terms have been created to describe womanhood.  Furthermore, the slang shows a degree of uncomfortability talking about such things in public.  After all, what is the purpose of slang words?  

It also helped to show me that our wordplay is nothing new.  When ancients refer to the vagina as the figurative sheath for the dagger, it's hard to smile and not at least think about contemporary ways in popular culture the vulva or clitoris is coded in clever linguistic disguise.  I think it says something about the way in which we view those personal bits and actions, and how we try to bridge a gap between the private and the public.
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