Self-confessed language lover Little sets out to explore America’s linguistic heritage in this fascinating account of two years’ worth of road trips across 46 states. It’s neither a travelogue nor a complete review of America’s language communities; instead, Little’s travels introduce and support the history of a select group of languages, from Native American tongues through Creole and pidgin up to the many dialects spoken by the current influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Some fans of the book will be fellow language fiends, happy to learn about the use of clitics in Lushootseed. However, the specifics of languages are a relatively small portion of the text, and the author’s footnotes and explanations make the volume accessible for a more general audience. Little’s obvious enthusiasm-she also wrote Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007)-drives the prose and keeps the information fresh and relevant. Arguing that language heritage is about more than the use of definite articles, Little delivers a revealing lesson in history, culture, prejudice, and privilege.
– Bridget Thoreson
TRIP OF THE TOUNGE by Elizabeth Little (Bloomsbury, April 2012)
As much a travelogue as a linguistic field log, Little (Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic) regales readers with her two-year odyssey crisscrossing the United States exploring the relationship between language and the American experience. A self-professed linguaphile, Little examines language communities, such as the Gullah speakers of South Carolina, and their relationship to English, a tongue she admits she considered boring. Some of her most interesting, and sobering, stops are in reservation towns, where she discovers the steady decline of Native languages among the Crow and Navajo. Little also touches down in New Orleans and the surrounding towns to investigate the nature of Creole and the origins of “picayune.” And she stops in Elko, Nev., home to a surprisingly vibrant Basque community. In the end, Little highlights the sad irony that America, whose history of immigration has given it a rich linguistic diversity, is also a place of “language loss,” which she attributes to discrimination rather than, in at least some cases, a genuine desire to assimilate. Still, this is fascinating for the linguistically inclined and for those interested in how our history is reflected in the words we speak.