Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review : Trip Of The Tongue

"Trip of the Tongue"

by Elizabeth Little

Published by Bloomsbury, 2012

 I have always been fascinated with languages and even as a child, I would read our huge family dictionary for hours. My interest in language broadened into a love of classical Latin, German and French as I grew older, and it was with immense delight that I discovered this book, "Trip of the Tongue".

Subtitled Cross- Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, Elizabeth Little outlines her own passion for languages, explores the incredible diversity of languages heard in her own home in  New York City and goes on one of the most interesting journeys I have ever read about -  in search of America's more unusual languages. Unsurprisingly,  Native American languages are well represented by Crow in Montana, Navajo in Arizona,  and the much more endangered Lushootseed, Quileute and  Makah in Washington.

The presence of Basque in Nevada  and African Gullah spoken in South Carolina - as in the Br'er Rabbit stories - were unexpected delights, as was Norwegian in North Dakota, though I did have some vague memory of reading about Norwegian settlers in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Haitian Creole in Florida was also a bit of a surprise, and made a fascinating and diverting chapter.

The languages I expected to see, namely  French and Creole in Louisiana, Spanish in New Mexico and English in Los Angeles were treated in a way I found amusing, fascinating and absorbing. She manages to cram in a vast amount of historical and language information throughout the book, occasionally so much so that reading felt like being on a rather exhilarating rollercoaster ride !

It never ceases to amaze me how all languages work, and yet can be so very , very different from each other in construction, idiom, grammar and  sparseness or  profundity of vocabulary, and I found myself pausing for thought and wonder on virtually every page. I have no formal background in linguistics and had to concentrate quite hard on some parts of the book, especially the presentation of the Navajo verb template on page 38 for instance, but it was well worth the mental effort to disentangle the component parts.

Of particular interest throughout the book is the analysis of why languages decline and how native speakers feel about them.  The gradual decline of many of the languages featured caused me sadness, but the fact that it is possible to study them at college/university level  is a step in the preservation of them for posterity and I sincerely hope the youngsters will one day realise what a precious treasure they have, and how desperately sad it would be to allow their languages to die out  completely in favour of the all-pervading English. Modern technology is allowing language programs to be created for a variety of platforms and formats, including phones and the less common languages are beginning to be better represented too, which is a cause for optimism.

The historic ill-treatment of native language speakers in schools was sadly all too familiar a story to me, as the same things happened to native Welsh speakers in my own family when they attended schools where English was made mandatory.

For me, the only jarring note was a fairly frequent use of the "f" word, which seemed completely unncessary in a book of this calibre, but apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed it and was sad to reach the end !
Share with friends using the share button below.


Ian Climacus said...

Thank you for the review. I heard Elizabeth Little interviewed on a language podcast I listen to (The World in Words) and the book sounded fascinating. I too love language, and am sorry to read of the decline of languages around the world.

Thank you also for the f-word warning; I have read enough language books to see it seems quite common, unfortunately as it is a word that still shocks me.

Mimi said...

Oooh, that sounds very interesting indeed.
I am also fascinated by words and language.

GretchenJoanna said...

It sounds like something I would like -- however, I instantly lose respect for writers who use vulgar language for no reason, so that will be an obstacle to get over, I guess, if I start in on this one. Thanks for the heads up.