Grab the Phrasebook and Head to… Nevada: Elizabeth Little’s ‘Trip of the Tongue’

For as long as people have lived in North America, the place has been home to a wide variety of languages. Even now, as English is the dominant language in the United States, pockets of other languages exist. Most US speakers of other languages also speak, or are learning, English, but the tapestry of languages is an integral part of the cultural history of our country.

Part travelogue, part history, part linguistic study, Trip of the Tongue takes a look at a few of the languages that have a presence in modern-day America: who speaks them, how they got here (if they weren’t already here) and whether they’re holding their own. Author Elizabeth Little is a self-described language buff; her previous book, Biting the Wax Tadpole, was a look at languages all over the world (the title comes from a mangled transcription of “Coca-Cola” into Chinese). But for this book, she stays home, traveling around the country to reservations, museums, ethnic festivals and immigrant neighborhoods, learning about languages.

New York City, immigrant central, is today home to people speaking a hundred different languages. But before the waves of immigrants arrived, this land was populated by hundreds of Native American tribes — who spoke hundreds of languages. And that’s where Little gets started.

The shameful history of the US government with regard to Native American languages is largely responsible for wiping many of them out. Indian children were sent to English schools and were punished for speaking their native languages, so that curtailed transmission of the languages. However, Little points out, even with efforts to revive some of the Native American languages, English is still the “prestige language” and is what people want to speak, so that’s what they speak.

She visits three regions with languages in various states of health: Montana, where Crow is spoken; Arizona, where Navajo is spoken; and Washington state, where she looks into several dying languages. Crow is endangered; Navajo has seen a concerted effort to revive it through instruction in schools; Lushootseed, Quileute and Makah are dying.

After discussing indigenous languages, Little moves on to creoles. Creole is a stable, living language that develops out of a mix of several languages spoken by people in close proximity who need to communicate (pidgins come first; creoles have native speakers and full grammars and vocabularies). Louisiana Creole is a blend of English, French and African languages. Gullah, spoken on the islands off South Carolina and Georgia, is a blend of English and African languages. Haitian Creole, spoken in Haiti and by a large immigrant community in south Florida, is a blend of French and African languages.

Immigrants, of course, also bring their own languages to this country. Little visits Elko, Nevada, the home of a community of Basque speakers; North Dakota, one of several states with a sizable population of Norwegian descent; New Mexico, which has more than one variety of Spanish; and Miami, with its large Cuban population. In Miami, Little notes an interesting juxtaposition of Haitian and Cuban immigrant communities with regard to language preservation and assimilation: “The more time I spent in Little Havana and Little Haiti, the more I began to think that the only minority languages or cultures that could survive the assimilative might of American society were those of communities with their own inherent political and economic resources. The Cuban population, I thought, had managed not to blend in because they were able to opt out.”

Trip of the Tongue is full of interesting factoids about language: a German-language newspaper in Pennsylvania was the first newspaper to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Porgy and Bess has its roots in Gullah. And Quileute has had a recent spark of interest because of the Twilight series (the character Jacob is a Quileute and at one point in the movie says something to Bella in Quileute). And notably, that immigrant families nearly always follow a pattern: new arrivals learn some English, their children are bilingual, and their grandchildren speak English almost exclusively.

Little’s writing is casual, snarky at times — she’s positively catty about Santa Fe — but the book is funny and witty and very informative. And it’s a celebration of the richness that so many different cultures bring to the greater American culture, a richness reflected in the variety of languages.

“When a community loses its language, it loses incalculable cultural artifacts,” Little writes. “It would be as if someone had walked into Charleston’s historic homes and set them all on fire. No more armoires, no more grass mats, no more wallpaper. No more names, no more stories, no more songs. An entire people would lose the chance to know their history.”

RATING 7 / 10