The Prodigal Tongue addresses not just etymology and usage—who says what and why—but also how history, geography, sociology and psychology have conspired to create, essentially, two different approaches to pronunciation, grammar, diction and spelling ... Murphy’s great love for language radiates from these pages. Adjectives have a 'mad beauty,' she writes ... Her examples are often funny and always apt. At one point, she discusses American and British approaches to the pesky issue of pronouncing words derived from French. Britons, it emerges, love to abuse Americans for using 'entree' to mean main course. Googling 'American entree stupid,' to make this point, she gets seven million hits ... an open-minded argument for tolerance and understanding.
The Prodigal Tongue is acute about the more subtle differences between America and Britain, not least in perspectives on class and race ... Yet the book’s chief pleasure is a simple one: Instead of sending the language to school, it savors a great many words and phrases that are staples on one side of the pond and unfamiliar on the other. Ms. Murphy has an amusing facility for zapping tired language myths, and she peppers her lively chapters with snippets from latter-day Bernard Shaws ... the most striking feature of her writing is a fascination with the quirks of usage. She succeeds in her ambition to increase 'our enjoyment of our common language and our pride in it,' and her essential argument is that the plurality of English, a result of the riotous drama of history, is something to extol: 'What if instead of tutting, we marveled?'
In The Prodigal Tongue, her witty and erudite account of the relationship between these two anglophone tribes, she culls some insults from British newspapers: 'mindless,' 'ugly and pointless,' 'infectious, destructive and virulent' ... But ... American English, in both grammar and pronunciation, often hugs tradition more closely than many British varieties do ... what lifts The Prodigal Tongue is Murphy’s deep learning, lightly worn, in linguistics and linguistic history. She provides fascinating evidence ... Having stoked U.K.-U.S. rivalry, Murphy draws on her dual nationality to point out that the two English versions do not actually differ that much. In spite of the odd misunderstanding, the two countries have no difficulty with each other’s books and movies ... Murphy observes that the language today belongs to the hundreds of millions on every continent who speak it mostly to each other and who find native speakers, whether British or American, an unwelcome, verbose and often incomprehensible intrusion.