Review: Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little

   Title: Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages
Author: Elizabeth Little
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

March 2012

I purchased a copy of this book.

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A “celebration of American multiculturalism,” Trip of the Tongue was a fascinating read. Part memoir, part travel book, and a historical and linguistic adventure all rolled in one, Elizabeth Little explores some of the (very numerous!) languages that make up the United States.

Little devotes chapters to several Native American languages, French and Louisiana Creole, Gullah (how did I live in Charleston, South Carolina for six years without learning about Gullah?!), Basque, Norwegian, Haitian Creole, and Spanish, while starting off and concluding with English. As she says in the introduction, “the most interesting story English has to tell . . . is the fact that English is spoken at all.”

One complaint I have specific to the ebook version. Even with publisher defaults turned on, whenever Little included charts/images, the font was very, very tiny. I couldn’t zoom in, and changing the font size only affected the text around it. For example (I’m holding my Nook up to my computer, so this screenshot is pretty much actual size):

Though not terribly frequent, this is content I wanted to read, and there were enough instances to make me wish I’d purchased a print copy.

Little’s tone would sometimes shift suddenly between slightly formal and very casual. This is where the memoir feel comes in. It was a bit odd to be reading about history and linguistics (such as the above example) and then come across a phrase like “it was hotter than Satan’s sweaty ball sack.” Don’t get me wrong – I totally laughed. I was just caught off guard. After I got used to these shifts, I was kind of thankful for the breaks the lighter sections gave me.

Trip of the Tongue shows the impact slavery, colonialism, prejudice, and privilege have on language. It also looks into the reasons languages die off, as well as what some communities are doing to prevent that.

If you are half as fascinated with language as I am, you’ll love this book!

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