Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little

There was never a wait longer than the time between clicking the “Request” button on Netgalley and receiving the approval email, saying I could read Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages by Elizabeth Little. I obsessively refreshed my inbox and when that email finally did come, I abandoned every other book I was reading and tucked in to read this one in only a few subway rides. You see, I love reading about languages, but even more than that, I love reading about languages in the US. This book and I were meant for each other.

Elizabeth Little has always been fascinated by languages, but not necessarily the ones that she could find in the US. She’d picked up grammars of well-known and obscure languages all throughout her life, but it wasn’t until she moved to the Sunnyside neighborhood in Queens and saw the way languages interacted, mixed, and mingled in the US that she became interested in studying what happens to languages once they set up shop in the States. So, she went on a cross-country trip to study the various language communities across the US, starting with the Native American languages.

Little is a professed linguistics nerd, something we have in common, so I was content to geek out with her about language oddities found because of language contact. I, too, am fascinated by the development of creole languages. I am fascinated by language death and what we can do to stop it, or at the very least, preserve the languages that exist today for future generations who might not have the opportunity to meet a native speaker. However, where Little truly shined was when she discussed the socio-political realities of language contact. As she states in her conclusion, that was not originally the focus of her book, but she found it to be inevitable.

The tone of Trip of the Tongue falls somewhere between memoir and narrative nonfiction. You get to know Little and her tone is casual throughout, but the book is also clearly well-researched. Each chapter is divided by language and it is difficult to think of a chapter that I liked more, because they are all fascinating. The chapters follow relatively the same structure: Little travels to the community, finds someone to show her around and educate her, she discusses the history of the community and the language, and shows how it is faring today as a language in contact with English.

I think Trip of the Tongue is an excellent introduction to popular sociolinguistics, though Little never calls it by that name. And because I can’t end this review without sharing some of the most fascinating tidbits of language contact, here are a few of my favorites:

“But there are also Native words that have become wonderfully, quintessentially American. One of my favorites is an Algonquin word meaning “marshy meadow.” It eventually gained traction as a dismissive term for an unsophisticated village in the middle of nowhere. You probably know it as podunk.”

On New Mexican Spanish – “From the word honey comes the Spanish jane. This then became the verb janear, ‘to look for girls.’ Similarly, ‘how much’ snuck into Spanish as jamache. This eventually evolved into the verb jamachar, “to talk business” – or, as Cobos puts it, ‘to talk turkey.'”

Another favorite anecdote from this story is the way Gullah, a creole language found in South Carolina, has been used to trace the origins of many of the Gullah community in Africa. Gullah has long been connected to several languages in Africa; however, it is significantly similar to Krio, a creole, also influenced by English, that is spoken in Sierra Leone. Linguist Tazieff Koroma, anthropologist Joseph Opala, and ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt recorded a Gullah woman, Amelia Dawley, singing a song. While they were visiting Sierra Leone, amazingly, they found a woman singing almost exactly the same song. Since then, Amelia Dawley’s grandchildren have visited their ancestors. You can listen to the original recording of Amelia Dawley singing at the Harris Neck Land Trust  website.

Trip of the Tongue is one of those books that seems like it was written for me. Elizabeth Little is not a linguist, though she has studied languages for most of her life, but she makes this clear from the beginning. This is not a book about linguistics, but about the ways languages face attrition in the presence of a majority language, like English. It is a book about the way the history of our languages is the history of our country and Little approaches the subject with intelligence, humor, and reverence.

ETA: Debi asked in the comments if I thought this book is appropriate for someone who doesn’t have a background in linguistics. ABSOLUTELY! Little doesn’t spend too much time on actual linguistic phenomenon, but when she does, she explains it very clearly with little to no jargon.

Related Links

Elizabeth Little’s website; Indian Country article about Diné University and the preservation of Navajo; Elizabeth Little on NPR (including clips of spoken Navajo and a clip of Zora Neale Hurston singing a Gullah song!)